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.

Wayne Stumpf got the same runaround when he applied in 1994 for a city mechanical contractor's license for his company, KC Heating & Cooling. Stumpf had 26 years of experience in the heating-and-cooling business, and his workers had all passed licensing tests in St. Charles, which introduced licensing for the mechanical trades before the city of St. Louis did. Just like Hoffmann, Stumpf was hit by an avalanche of requests for additional information and documentation; unlike Hoffmann, he sued St. Louis. It took five years, but the city finally settled last year, agreeing to issue licenses to the company and its employees. For Stumpf, it was too late. Six months before the settlement, he sold his interest in the business and opened an ice-skating rink in Wentzville, Mo.

Hoffmann and Stumpf see a common nemesis behind their problems with St. Louis, and it wasn't city bureaucrats trying to make life tough on them. "It's as plain as the nose on your face," says Stumpf. "The Pipefitters are trying to stop competition from nonunion firms." The new licensing ordinance that the Local 562 helped push through the St. Louis Board of Aldermen in 1992 required mechanical contractors to meet minimum training levels and to document the training. Safety was the official reason: Every mechanical contractor should have a properly trained worker install furnace gas lines, chillers and other pressurized pipes. For a union contractor who negotiates with Local 562, documenting the training is a simple enough matter -- those union contractors already spend $2.1 million a year on a training program they run jointly with Local 562. Training, O'Mara says, is one of the reasons union contractors cost more than nonunion competitors.

But the city ordinance didn't make things tough just on nonunion contractors. It also made it hard on other unions, especially the Sheet Metal Workers union, something Hoffmann found funny: "It treats other unions worse than us nonunion guys."

Jack Goldkamp, president of the St. Louis chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association: "I'm just a sheet-metal guy, but to speak, and to sit there and listen for two hours, as we did, to everyone speaking, and see the vote come out the way it did, it seems prearranged."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jack Goldkamp, president of the St. Louis chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association: "I'm just a sheet-metal guy, but to speak, and to sit there and listen for two hours, as we did, to everyone speaking, and see the vote come out the way it did, it seems prearranged."
Jim O'Mara, business manager of Local 562, says of rival unions: "If I'd lost all my work to nonunion companies, I'd try to take someone’s work, too."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim O'Mara, business manager of Local 562, says of rival unions: "If I'd lost all my work to nonunion companies, I'd try to take someone’s work, too."

It's all a question of jurisdiction: who gets to do what job. Traditionally, sheet-metal workers install furnaces, air conditioners and ventilation ductwork; pipefitters install pressurized pipe. On a commercial gas furnace, for example, a pipefitter would install the gas lines to fuel the furnace, and a sheet-metal worker would make and install the ductwork that carries heated air throughout the building. It has never really been that simple or clear-cut, however. There's often a tendency to do whatever it takes to get the job done, even if a little bit of work technically belongs to someone else, and changing technology can blur the lines even more. Once upon a time, for example, furnaces were built on-site, and both pipefitters and sheet-metal workers had their assigned tasks. Then came prefabricated furnace units, and it wasn't quite clear whose job it was to set them in place. In recent years, sheet-metal workers, pipefitters, metal workers, operating engineers and carpenters have all put commercial heating units into, or on top of, buildings.

Gray areas with regard to jurisdiction give rise to disputes, which sometimes turn violent. Three years ago, for example, six union pipefitters employed by Rock Hill Mechanical Corp. assaulted sheet-metal workers installing sump pans on the roof of Bodine Aluminum in Troy, Mo. The pans are made of sheet metal, but they are part of a pump assembly that pressurizes pipe. After one of the sheet-metal workers was attacked twice in one month, he and officials from his union filed a $3 million lawsuit against Rock Hill Mechanical alleging that the company refused to prevent its employees from threatening, intimidating and assaulting sheet-metal workers. They settled out of court in May 1998.

The city's ordinance clarified some of those jurisdictional gray areas, but at the expense of sheet-metal workers, according to Shulamith Simon, an attorney who has represented both sheet-metal contractors and the Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 36. For many years, for example, both sheet-metal workers and pipefitters have connected Freon lines on air conditioners, but the city's licensing ordinance made it illegal for anyone but a pipefitter to do that work on a commercial project.

When the city's ordinance was introduced in 1992, "the Pipefitters assured the other trades that they could continue doing what they'd been doing, that they would be grandfathered in," says Jack Goldkamp, president of the St. Louis chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association. But when sheet-metal contractors began applying for licenses in 1994, Goldkamp says, every applicant who "did not employ a pipefitter was rejected."

When the city ordinance was introduced, Goldkamp says, he wasn't too concerned because the ordinance was aimed at commercial contractors, and his company, Frank Fischer Inc., mainly did residential. But then city inspectors interfered with his crew while they were working on an apartment building for St. Louis University, and Goldkamp was forced to hire a lawyer and get a court order restraining the city. "Whenever you hire a lawyer, there goes your reason for working, because there go your profits," he quips.

Goldkamp says he didn't pay enough attention to the city ordinance when it was introduced because he thought it wouldn't affect him. He and other contractors would not make the same mistake twice.

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