Pipe Schemes

The powerful Pipefitters union has a simple plan to provide job security for its members: It wants to take away other people's work.

The sights along Riverview Drive, just north of I-270, are unremarkable: a few modest ranch homes on large lots, a former nursing home, a couple of patches of soybeans. There's nothing particularly interesting to see in this neglected corner of North County -- that is, until the scenery is broken by a gleaming security fence topped by strands of barbed wire.

Behind this formidable chain-link barrier, adorned with a large "private property" sign, is a sprawling 450-acre compound that's a mystery to most St. Louisans. Lawyers and businessmen who've tangled with the owners of the property whisper darkly of black limousines entering and exiting at all hours of the day, of clandestine activities, of a fortress mentality. This gated complex, for them, might as well be the stronghold of a secretive medieval order. "You can't get in there," they warn.

In reality, it's a rather unimpressive place. Behind the barbed wire and guards is a shabby collection of '70s-era buildings, crumbling plazas, deteriorating parking lots and a padlocked swimming pool. On a typical weekday, there's an eerie absence of human activity; on a recent Saturday afternoon, only a few visitors show up to play the 18-hole golf course. In one building, where the walls around the central staircase are decorated with portraits of dead white guys, a lone receptionist answers the phone and buzzes in visitors.

Robert Hoffman claims the proposed ordinance could eventually close more than one-half of the heating-and-air-conditioning contractors doing business in St. Louis County.
Jennifer Silverberg
Robert Hoffman claims the proposed ordinance could eventually close more than one-half of the heating-and-air-conditioning contractors doing business in St. Louis County.

This forlorn-looking complex serves as headquarters of the welfare-and-education fund of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562 -- one of St. Louis County's most influential political and labor organizations.

For decades, this relatively small union local wielded disproportionate power at the bargaining table and the ballot box. Its reputation for toughness was the stuff of legend and grist for front-page headlines. Local 562 had the clout to rein in corporate gorillas and the political muscle to help elect dozens of public officials. The contracts and workplace rules it won created a working-class elite whose members today earn a solidly middle-class $27 an hour. That's $54,000 a year, not counting overtime.

But like the union's North County complex, the Pipefitters have seen better days. Despite a 1998 merger with the Plumbers Union local, Local 562 counts just 3,500 members across eastern Missouri, and of that number, nearly one in three is a retiree. Its last contract was seen as concessionary. The union's longtime business manager, James O'Mara, is 67 and planning to step down. He's also leaving the St. Louis County Council, where he has represented the 4th District since 1990.

But before the crusty, media-shy union boss leaves public life, he's betting the power of his union on a final high-stakes gamble, a move that he promises will "level the playing field" between his highly trained, highly paid members and the dozens of nonunion contractors who perform similar work. Local 562 and a group of 30 unionized contractors called the Mechanical Contractors Association of Eastern Missouri (MCA) are pushing through a county ordinance that will require everybody who installs commercial heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems to get a county license. The license would impose strict training and job-experience requirements that, by definition, would give a union pipefitter an edge.

Although it's billed as a move to improve safety, the measure so clearly benefits the Pipefitters that an extraordinary coalition of big employers, building managers and other trade unions was formed to fight it. The biggest protests, however, have come from nonunion contractors. Claiming their livelihoods are threatened, they've taken to staging noisy protests at the county-government center in Clayton.

Despite the opposition, however, the measure has glided forward and appears certain to be approved in some form by the County Council, where O'Mara presides as chairman and Democrats outnumber Republicans by a single crucial vote. The proposed ordinance was formally introduced last week by Councilman Charlie Dooley.

If the measure passes intact, it would seemingly confirm what many folks believe -- that Local 562 has undue influence over county government. But a union victory also is likely to topple a structure of alliances that helped it re-emerge as a political force in the 1990s. Bizarrely, this obscure fight over who gets to install pressurized pipes has the potential to rip apart the coalition that put Democrats in control in much of eastern Missouri.

To understand why the county licensing proposal is provoking such opposition, let Robert Hoffmann and Wayne Stumpf recount their experiences with the city of St. Louis, which began enforcing a Pipefitter-backed licensing requirement in 1994.

"We submitted applications for seven of our guys," says Hoffmann, co-owner of Hoffmann Brothers Heating & Air Conditioning. "The city accepted two and rejected five." On second thought, "rejected" isn't exactly the right term: The licensing board didn't explicitly deny the requests for licenses, but it didn't accept them, either. Instead, it demanded more and more documentation, Hoffmann says. Each city request was like an escalation of the labors of Hercules. The board wanted Hoffmann to provide a list of all the teachers who had taught each of his employees and the courses they had taught. And Hoffmann was told to supply a letter from each teacher, verifying the information.

After he complied, the board had another request: List every job each employee performed that allowed him to accumulate the 3,000 hours of work experience needed to qualify for a city license. And Hoffmann was told to include on the list the name and contact information for every contractor supervisor and owner representative who could verify each employee's work experience. Given that those 3,000 hours could be spread out over five or more years of training, any contractor would have trouble compiling those records. For a small contractor like Hoffmann, it was almost impossible.

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