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.

When word leaked out last year that the Pipefitters and the MCA were drafting a licensing ordinance for the much larger county, opposition quickly grew, spreading to general contractors, developers, property managers and the largest employers in the region. So virulent and intense was the opposition to licensing that supporters of the ordinance were outnumbered 50-1 at hearings of the county's mechanical-code-review committee, which was charged with drafting the legislation.

It is said that politics makes strange bedfellows, but none was stranger than the group that coalesced against the Pipefitters and the unionized contractors. Members ranged from AFL-CIO unions such as Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 and Operating Engineers Local 2 to an association of anti-union construction companies called the Associated Builders and Contractors. The big kahuna of the opposition, however, was a group called the St. Louis Council of Construction Consumers, an organization of the area's largest employers. The Council, which until this year was affiliated with the national Business Roundtable, includes such local corporate heavyweights as Anheuser-Busch, Boeing, BJC, Monsanto and Washington University.

It was the Council that initially took leadership of the opposition, something that buoyed the dozens of mom-and-pop contractors, who, although noisy, weren't very powerful. They took heart when an Anheuser-Busch attorney pledged at one meeting to sue not only the county if the licensing ordinance was enacted but each and every member of the mechanical-code-review committee.

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.

The breadth and intensity of the opposition shocked the Pipefitters and their allies, the unionized contractors. They just didn't understand why the residential heating-and-cooling contractors, people like Hoffmann, were so upset, because the proposed ordinance applied only to commercial contractors. Malcolm Sweet Jr., president of Condaire Inc. and a key proponent of the licensing ordinance, says MCA purposely exempted residential contractors in order to avoid antagonizing them. Typically, small contractors as a group "are not very cohesive," Sweet says, and "we didn't want to do anything to get them together."

But what the MCA and Pipefitters didn't quite grasp was just how many firms performed both commercial and residential work in the county and just how many of those firms had a bad taste in their mouth thanks to the city's ordinance. And to make matters worse, the county's proposed ordinance was significantly more restrictive than the city's. As drafted, the ordinance would require that a worker in training accumulate 10,000 hours of directly related work experience in an approved apprenticeship program in order to quality for a license. "If you work for a company that does 30 percent commercial work and 70 percent residential, that means you'd have to work 30,000 hours to get a license" -- or about 15 years, says Hoffmann, head of the St. Louis chapter of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America. The effect would be to push those companies out of commercial work and overheat the competition in the residential market until many more firms ended up failing. By Hoffmann's reckoning, the proposal would eventually close more than half of the estimated 600 heating, ventilation and air-conditioning contractors doing business in the county.

It wasn't the opposition from nonunion and sheet-metal contractors that befuddled licensing supporters. Garry Earls, director of the county's Department of Public Works, says he expected "straight Republicans," with their opposition to government involvement in the economy, to be against the measure. The opposition of building owners, however, "got me scratching my head," he says, because they should be among the prime beneficiaries of licensing. Here's Earls' thinking: With licensing, the county would mandate a minimum level of training that everyone -- union and nonunion -- would have to have and could require continuing education and periodic recertification to ensure that workers stay abreast of changing technology and safety regulations. That, in theory, would provide better value to building owners and encourage more investment in the county.

"We already require permits and do inspections, but licensing holds workers responsible for the quality of their work," says Earls, who serves as County Executive Buzz Westfall's point man on the issue. "If I just come out at critical events and inspect, there could be lots of things done that aren't quality and don't provide value to owners. If I found that going on, and had licensing, I could hold them accountable. It is another lever to use to maintain quality construction."

That was pretty much the thinking at the mechanical-code-review committee. Despite the heavy opposition and the brewery's threat of lawsuits, committee members -- including Thomas Corrigan, an MCA officer -- voted to send the licensing ordinance to the county's building commission.

As summer approached and temperatures rose, something funny began to happen to the formidable coalition that organized to defeat the licensing proposal: It began to melt.

The first major defection came from Anheuser-Busch, the same company that had threatened to fight the licensing ordinance in the courts if necessary.

What happened? In short, Fitters happened.

In the months since the brewery's truculent threats to the mechanical-code-review committee, Local 562 voted to boycott Anheuser-Busch products. Not only would 3,500 Pipefitters give up their Buds and Michelobs, but Jim O'Mara said he intended to ask the unions in the Building and Construction Trades Council -- 25 locals representing 50,000 workers -- to support the boycott. It was, the trade-union newspaper St. Louis Labor Tribune reported, a declaration of war by the Pipefitters on the brewery.

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