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.

It's O'Mara's tough-guy act and his seeming lock on the council's majority that gives the licensing opponents fits. Councilman Robert A. Young IV is a pipefitter, and the two other Democrats on the council, Charlie Dooley and Jeff Wagener, have been recipients of Local 562 contributions and support. Buzz Westfall, the county executive, also has been close to the union -- he's been the No. 2 recipient of Local 562 political-action-committee contributions in recent years, just behind Gov. Mel Carnahan. "The Pipefitters control the political structure," says Sandy Rothschild, executive director of the Missouri Growth Association, which represents about 1,000 property managers, owners and developers. The association is part of the coalition fighting the licensing ordinance.

After the building-commission vote in June, opponents of the measure were still optimistic they'd get a fair hearing before the County Council. Lavallee, the spokesman for the Council of Construction Consumers, claimed that Dooley promised opponents of the measure that he would have it sent to his committee, where he would hold more hearings and try to address their concerns. Wagener also was keeping an open mind, Lavallee said.

Dooley, at the time, was running for the Democratic nomination to succeed Bill Clay in Congress, and given that the hands-on favorite was Clay's son, state Sen. William "Lacy" Clay, Dooley was desperate for any support he could get. Within weeks of making his pledge to Lavallee, Dooley won the surprise endorsement from O'Mara. The Pipefitters boss, whose union was largely responsible for getting Bill Clay elected to Congress, had turned his back on Clay's son. Dooley lost his congressional bid, but he's unlikely to forget O'Mara's support.

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.

Wagener is facing a tough re-election fight in his South County district and is likely to need the Pipefitters to keep his seat. Because of that, contractors like Hoffmann don't expect to count on Wagener. "We have seen that Wagener does what the Pipefitters want," Hoffmann says, recalling that when Wagener chaired a hearing on a similar licensing proposal for plumbers three years ago, he interrupted people who tried to speak against the proposal.

"Hoffmann doesn't know me," Wagener responds. "I've met with him and offered to help, but politics is the art of compromise."

As for Westfall, the county executive has been absent from the debate but is not expected to stand in O'Mara's way. Westfall's spokesman referred a request for an interview to Earls, the public-works director. Once the County Council takes up the ordinance, Earls says, his office will recommend some changes. If the council adopts the appropriate corrections and improvements, he says, "My presumption is the county executive will sign it."

Given that things look bleak for them, licensing opponents have set for themselves another goal: changing the council's political complexion. O'Mara is retiring from the council at the end of this term, but he is being succeeded by his son Mike O'Mara, a business agent for Local 562, so that's a change that's not a change. The younger O'Mara had no opposition in the Democratic primary and has no opposition in the general election.

The opponents say their best opportunity for changing the makeup of the council is in the 6th District, which is represented by Wagener. "It naturally should be Republican," says Hoffmann, who claims Pipefitter money and volunteers helped get Wagener elected last time. Business groups in the anti-licensing coalition, including Hoffmann's and Goldkamp's trade associations, are rallying around Wagener's Republican challenger, John Campisi.

They are excitedly anticipating an unusual ally, suggesting that Nelson's differences with O'Mara could mean the Carpenters District Council will back Campisi. They can hardly dare believe it: a union supporting a Republican! Nelson says that unless he gets a firm commitment from Wagener by Oct. 6 to oppose the ordinance, he will back the Republican. "Wagener won by about 200 votes last election," Nelson says. "I've got 971 registered voters in the 6th District, and I'm one of them."

"It is premature to form an opinion," Wagener says. "The bill hasn't even been introduced yet." Of those backing his opponent, he says, "I don't know what their logic is. I met with a number of people, and I'm willing to listen to all sides, (but) I don't respond well to threats (and) I will vote on the ordinance, probably in December, win or lose."

Earlier this year, Martin Maddaloni, the president of the International Union, signed a memorandum of understanding with the head of the Laborers International Union in which he promised not to support any measure that would call for a license to perform utility work. Admitting the Pipefitters' work overlaps work performed by other craft unions, Maddaloni told the construction-industry publication Engineering News Record that he was working on a similar pact with the Sheet Metal Workers union. The licensing proposal in St. Louis County can be seen as an attempt to get licensing in place before a national agreement freezes things where they are.

For Jim O'Mara, Local 562 and their allies at the MCA, pushing the licensing ordinance has proved a high-stakes gamble. What started as a straightforward measure to "level the playing field" with nonunion contractors instead brought a whole bunch of angry players into the game. With control of the County Council at stake, the game has turned into something that matters to a whole lot of people who don't care diddly about who gets to install pressurized pipes.

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