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 labor clubs "leveraged the political power of the Pipefitters," Hickey says. They became so strong that the St. Louis Labor Council, the regional organization of the AFL-CIO, stopped making its own candidate endorsements in local races and agreed to follow the clubs' lead.

Hickey credits the labor clubs with putting St. Louis County narrowly in the Democratic camp and Jefferson County even more so. "A few (election) cycles ago, there were three Republican state representatives in Jefferson County and a Republican County Commission," he says. "Now, there are no Republicans."

Even where Pipefitters are few and far between, "their membership is active," says Hickey. "They see the connection between electoral politics and social and political decisions." The union has launched Labor Legislative Clubs in northeast Missouri, centered in Hannibal; in the Mineral Area, centered in Farmington; and in the Bootheel, centered in New Madrid. "The 'Fitters have built an ethic of political and broader labor activity and labor consciousness that other elements of labor are trying to produce," Hickey says. "Some people could resent their having all these seats, but they've done the work (and) they aren't stopping anyone else."

O'Mara says he wishes other unions would emulate the political activism of the Pipefitters: "I think the country would be better for it."

For O'Mara, politics is but one prong in an overall strategy for securing work for his members. Since he ascended to the top spot in Local 562 nine years ago, the Pipefitters have earned a reputation as leaders in labor-management cooperation. They were the first union locally, and one of the first nationally, to establish mandatory drug testing for employees, and they still have the strictest standards. They pioneered a joint labor-management safety program that become a model in the industry. They deliberately held wage increases to a fraction of what other construction workers were getting in order to decrease the gap between their wages and others'.

Last year, together with the MCA, they hired a market-opinion-research firm to find out what their "customers" -- architects, engineers, general contractors and building owners -- thought about the Pipefitters. "We did it to find out why employers are using other trades," O'Mara told the general contractors in January. What they found was not very positive, so they set about to change their image.

The union used the results as the framework for the labor agreement with the 30 mechanical contractors in the MCA. That agreement was so novel that it attracted national attention. First, it was unusually long, at 10.5 years. Second, it contained unusually broad concessions on work rules to increase productivity and allow contractors to use larger numbers of less skilled workers. It created a cooperative method for ending jurisdictional disputes.

It is really an extreme application of the trendy business model of "pushing responsibility to the lowest level." The agreement conceives of each union member as an independent business unit who supplies his own tools and guarantees his work: If he screws up a job, he has to fix it for free on his own time. MCA president Dave Hardin goes so far as to say Local 562 has incorporated every recommendation by the Business Roundtable to make construction work cost-effective. So much for class conflict.

O'Mara's rationale for this policy is that mechanical contractors don't control the work anymore; indeed, no one locally does. Even the major St. Louis companies that order most construction are controlled by people without any tie or commitment here, he says, and they have no reason to build or expand here, other than cost. And that trend, with the sale of major local corporations such as Monsanto, is accelerating. "We're dying on the vine," O'Mara says. "They're selling all the companies out from under us."

In short, Local 562 accepts that it has to compete for work, and its agreement with mechanical contractors sets forth their willingness to do so. At the same time, they want a floor to the competition to prevent it from becoming ruinous, and the political process establishes that floor. One way to regulate competition is to have government control professional credentials, much as the state does for physicians and lawyers. Besides, if the Pipefitters are going to make all sorts of concessions to attract business investment to St. Louis, then when businesses do come to town, the Pipefitters had better get their share.

To drive home that point, O'Mara told general contractors in January that if the union's cooperative efforts didn't result in more work for his members, he'd junk the agreement.

On a Thursday afternoon late last month, nonunion heating-and-air-conditioning contractors staged a noisy demonstration at the county-government center, circling the block in their vans, honking and making a commotion. The County Council was meeting, but the licensing ordinance hadn't made it to the agenda yet. The meeting appeared routine and businesslike until the council voted on a zoning change sought by the Jones Co. The council's four Democrats supported the measure, which was opposed by some residents along Barrett Station Road. Republican Greg Quinn, whose district includes the affected property, complained that "a developer's campaign money mattered more (to the majority) than what citizens say." O'Mara bristled at the criticism, and as the meeting adjourned, he walked over to Quinn and, using a profanity, told the Republican he'd do well never to again question his integrity.

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