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.

In a letter to his members, O'Mara accused Anheuser-Busch of harassing union members at the brewery, and he complained about the lack of progress on a new contract. He blamed the brewery's intransigence on, of all things, the licensing proposal. In his letter, dated April 14, O'Mara wrote: "I personally was told Anheuser-Busch was coming after us because the County was proposing licensing for Pipefitters in St. Louis County. It is fine for Anheuser-Busch to monopolize the beer market but not okay for Union members to level the playing field with non-union workers."

Throughout the spring, Council of Construction Consumers executive director Dennis Lavallee had served as the chief spokesman for the opponents of the licensing ordinance. And he still was speaking out when the county building commission took up the measure at a hearing on June 13. But as Lavallee ended his speech, Anheuser-Busch's top lawyer, Stephen K. Lambright, announced that although the company was a member of the Council, it was prepared to live with the proposed licensing ordinance as written.

The defection by one of the region's top employers couldn't have been more public, and among the small contractors who had leaned on the Council for support, the story spread that the brewery had simply succumbed to Pipefitter pressure. Months later, in an interview with the RFT in his office, O'Mara refused to discuss Anheuser-Busch except to say that the Labor Tribune's headline on the dispute -- "Pipefitters 562 Declares War on Anheuser-Busch" -- was, in his view, "a little strong."

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 county building commission has five members. The chairman is Leonard Kiem, an executive at the Jones Co., one of the largest homebuilders in St. Louis County. The other four members are Stanley Glantz, an architect; Donald Bresnan, a business agent for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1; Stephen Martini, apprenticeship director for Bricklayers Union No. 1; and Terry Nelson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Carpenters District Council of Eastern Missouri. Earls, the public-works director, serves as an ex officio member. At the critical two-hour hearing on June 13, Kiem and Nelson did most of the talking -- and what opponents heard at first gave them reason for optimism.

Witness after witness attacked the proposal and asked the commission to send it back to the mechanical-code-review committee for changes. Kiem repeatedly promised witnesses that one change or another would be made, and Nelson openly questioned the need for licensing. Then, when the commission voted, came the shock. Bresnan and Martini moved to send the proposal up to the County Council without a recommendation; Nelson voted no. Glantz abstained and Kiem did not vote, and the ordinance was on its way to County Council, where O'Mara presides as chairman and at least three of the council's six other members are seen as Pipefitter allies.

The defeat at the building commission was staggering for the opposition. "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," says Goldkamp. "We had a meeting afterwards, and nobody knew what to say."

But the commission's vote also brought hard feelings within the ranks of labor to the surface. Nelson, the Carpenters official, represents three times the number of union members as O'Mara but found himself on the losing side. A generation ago, the Carpenters District Council was one of the three most influential unions in St. Louis, a status Nelson appears determined to regain for the union. Gravel-voiced and blustery, he could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie about union bosses -- an Edward G. Robinson type who peppers his sentences with "yadda, yadda, yadda." He is ill-disposed to taking his marching orders from Jim O'Mara, and even before the building commission's vote, the Carpenters official was working behind the scenes against the licensing ordinance. Nelson's argument was that the proposal would take work "historically and traditionally" performed by carpenters and give it to pipefitters, costing his members millions of dollars in lost wages. For example, in an industrial setting, millwrights, who are members of the Carpenters union, take any kind of equipment or machinery that has been unloaded by ironworkers and "they line it, level it and anchor it to the floor," Nelson says. "Historically, that work is ours. But under the code, as I read it, if there is a piece of pipe on that piece of equipment or machine, a pipefitter would have to do all that. The Pipefitters want everything. That won't fly."

In a letter to his members in July, Nelson urged his members to lobby the County Council to reject the proposed licensing ordinance, calling it "an effort by the Pipefitters to take our MAN HOURS away from us through legislation."

Though O'Mara admitted to a group of general contractors in a meeting at the University Club in January that the Pipefitters have a history of spuriously claiming jurisdiction over work -- "If someone once walked a pipe past a rock, we'd say that rock was our work" was the way he put it -- this time he says it is Nelson's claims that are spurious. Snorting and shaking his head like an indulgent grandfather, O'Mara suggests in an interview that the mercurial Nelson blew another fuse. The Pipefitters, O'Mara says, aren't trying to take anyone's work; it's other unions that are trying to take Pipefitter work. "And I don't blame them," he says. "If I'd lost all my work to nonunion companies, I'd try to take someone's work, too." But, he adds, the language assigning work in the proposed licensing ordinance merely copies an agreement made by all the AFL-CIO construction unions in 1972. "I just want them to live up to the agreement," he says.

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