Behind this formidable chain-link barrier, adorned with a large "private property" sign, is a sprawling 450-acre compound that's a mystery to most St. Louisans. Lawyers and businessmen who've tangled with the owners of the property whisper darkly of black limousines entering and exiting at all hours of the day, of clandestine activities, of a fortress mentality. This gated complex, for them, might as well be the stronghold of a secretive medieval order. "You can't get in there," they warn.
In reality, it's a rather unimpressive place. Behind the barbed wire and guards is a shabby collection of '70s-era buildings, crumbling plazas, deteriorating parking lots and a padlocked swimming pool. On a typical weekday, there's an eerie absence of human activity; on a recent Saturday afternoon, only a few visitors show up to play the 18-hole golf course. In one building, where the walls around the central staircase are decorated with portraits of dead white guys, a lone receptionist answers the phone and buzzes in visitors.
This forlorn-looking complex serves as headquarters of the welfare-and-education fund of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562 -- one of St. Louis County's most influential political and labor organizations.
For decades, this relatively small union local wielded disproportionate power at the bargaining table and the ballot box. Its reputation for toughness was the stuff of legend and grist for front-page headlines. Local 562 had the clout to rein in corporate gorillas and the political muscle to help elect dozens of public officials. The contracts and workplace rules it won created a working-class elite whose members today earn a solidly middle-class $27 an hour. That's $54,000 a year, not counting overtime.
But like the union's North County complex, the Pipefitters have seen better days. Despite a 1998 merger with the Plumbers Union local, Local 562 counts just 3,500 members across eastern Missouri, and of that number, nearly one in three is a retiree. Its last contract was seen as concessionary. The union's longtime business manager, James O'Mara, is 67 and planning to step down. He's also leaving the St. Louis County Council, where he has represented the 4th District since 1990.
But before the crusty, media-shy union boss leaves public life, he's betting the power of his union on a final high-stakes gamble, a move that he promises will "level the playing field" between his highly trained, highly paid members and the dozens of nonunion contractors who perform similar work. Local 562 and a group of 30 unionized contractors called the Mechanical Contractors Association of Eastern Missouri (MCA) are pushing through a county ordinance that will require everybody who installs commercial heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems to get a county license. The license would impose strict training and job-experience requirements that, by definition, would give a union pipefitter an edge.
Although it's billed as a move to improve safety, the measure so clearly benefits the Pipefitters that an extraordinary coalition of big employers, building managers and other trade unions was formed to fight it. The biggest protests, however, have come from nonunion contractors. Claiming their livelihoods are threatened, they've taken to staging noisy protests at the county-government center in Clayton.
Despite the opposition, however, the measure has glided forward and appears certain to be approved in some form by the County Council, where O'Mara presides as chairman and Democrats outnumber Republicans by a single crucial vote. The proposed ordinance was formally introduced last week by Councilman Charlie Dooley.
If the measure passes intact, it would seemingly confirm what many folks believe -- that Local 562 has undue influence over county government. But a union victory also is likely to topple a structure of alliances that helped it re-emerge as a political force in the 1990s. Bizarrely, this obscure fight over who gets to install pressurized pipes has the potential to rip apart the coalition that put Democrats in control in much of eastern Missouri.
To understand why the county licensing proposal is provoking such opposition, let Robert Hoffmann and Wayne Stumpf recount their experiences with the city of St. Louis, which began enforcing a Pipefitter-backed licensing requirement in 1994.
"We submitted applications for seven of our guys," says Hoffmann, co-owner of Hoffmann Brothers Heating & Air Conditioning. "The city accepted two and rejected five." On second thought, "rejected" isn't exactly the right term: The licensing board didn't explicitly deny the requests for licenses, but it didn't accept them, either. Instead, it demanded more and more documentation, Hoffmann says. Each city request was like an escalation of the labors of Hercules. The board wanted Hoffmann to provide a list of all the teachers who had taught each of his employees and the courses they had taught. And Hoffmann was told to supply a letter from each teacher, verifying the information.
After he complied, the board had another request: List every job each employee performed that allowed him to accumulate the 3,000 hours of work experience needed to qualify for a city license. And Hoffmann was told to include on the list the name and contact information for every contractor supervisor and owner representative who could verify each employee's work experience. Given that those 3,000 hours could be spread out over five or more years of training, any contractor would have trouble compiling those records. For a small contractor like Hoffmann, it was almost impossible.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
O'Mara did not win his County Council seat or his $105,000-a-year business-manager job by being stupid. He is a very adept politician, and he showed that in the aftermath of the building commission's vote. Even though the union and the MCA had prevailed, O'Mara didn't take the opposition for granted, and he selectively opened negotiations with some of them.
After Anheuser-Busch abandoned its opposition -- the code never really affected the company anyway, because its brewery and headquarters are in the city -- other major employers followed suit. With the building-commission vote in hand, O'Mara met with a committee from the Council of Construction Consumers and promised to reword part of the ordinance to make it clearer that those large companies could perform any mechanical work they wanted on their own facilities with their own staff. The Council then agreed to drop its opposition.
For O'Mara, long seen as a savvy player, it was a classic move.
If debate about the Pipefitters-backed licensing measure seems to have an air of inevitability, it's probably thanks to Local 562's long history of successful political activism -- something that O'Mara, as business manager, helped refine.
Back in the 1950s and '60s, John "Doc" Lawler, the local's longtime business agent and manager, built a political organization that some observers say came to dominate the Missouri General Assembly. Lawler, who died in 1972, was a Democratic Party committeeman from North St. Louis for 20 years and chairman of the city Democratic Central Committee in 1966. He got his son, John Lawler Jr., also a union official, elected to the Board of Aldermen and, according to news accounts at the time, ran bills through the Legislature with a coterie of pipefitters that included state Sen. Robert Young and state Reps. Patrick O'Connor and Patrick Hickey.
In an effort to ward off a federal anti-discrimination lawsuit against the union in the mid-'60s, Lawler hired civil-rights activist Bill Clay to work for the union as a minority recruiter. In 1968, Local 562 provided most of the money for Clay's successful campaign for the 1st Congressional District. When Robert Young later won the 2nd Congressional District, Local 562 could claim to have two guys in Congress.
Clay's election also brought trouble to the union, however. The elder Lawler, together with the union's most powerful figure, Lawrence Callanan, and vice president George Seaton, was convicted of violating federal election laws that barred unions from spending money on federal elections. The three appealed their convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the verdicts on the grounds that the jury was not instructed to consider the possibility that the money the union spent on the campaign consisted of voluntary contributions from members. That ruling established the principle that still holds: Unions can give money to political campaigns as long as it is money voluntarily contributed by members.
Lawler died four months before the Supreme Court issued its decision. Despite a still-standing conviction, and despite two decades of federal efforts to tie Lawler to organized crime, nearly every prominent politician in the state came to his funeral on Feb. 2, 1972. According to an account in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, mourners included Gov. Warren E. Hearnes, Lt. Gov. William Morris, nearly the entire state Legislature and St. Louis Mayor Al Cervantes.
Lawler's death, which followed Call-anan's by just eight months, plunged Local 562 into a crisis. The new business manager, Edward Steska, was murdered in his office three weeks later, shot five times. Steska's killer was never identified. Sixteen months after the murder, Lawrence Callanan's son Thomas Callanan, also a Local 562 business agent, lost his legs in a car bombing while driving on Redman Road in Spanish Lake.
Such violence tarnished the union's reputation. "There were pretty clear links with unsavory elements of society," says Ray Hilgert, a management and labor-relations professor at Washington University, and those unsavory links cost the union some influence. But violence was not unique to the Pipefitters. During that same period, St. Louis businessmen and professionals resorted to violence to resolve their issues: In the month that Steska was murdered, St. Louis area vending-machine companies used firebombs in their battle for market share, a Creve Coeur dentist hired thugs to scare off his competitors and a prominent real-estate developer went on trial for torching scores of houses along Delmar Boulevard.
The union's political influence continued to wane until 1985, when Jim O'Mara and two other Pipefitter business agents launched something called the North County Labor Legislative Club. With Democratic Party and organized-labor fortunes at a low ebb everywhere -- with Republicans in the White House, the Missouri governor's mansion and the St. Louis county executive's office -- the idea of a political club for labor, independent of traditional party and union bureaucracies, caught fire. Hundreds of labor activists from dozens of unions began showing up for meetings. "The Pipefitters provided the leadership, and the Labor Legislative Club provided a pole for grassroots labor people to rally around," says John Hickey, executive director of the Missouri Progressive Voter Coalition. Soon the Pipefitters started a labor legislative club in South County, followed by others in Jefferson County and elsewhere.
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.
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.
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.
Even if O'Mara wins, his legacy at the union isn't secure. He may get licensing for now, but the rift with the Carpenters and other unions could sink the alliances and labor clubs that boosted Democratic Party fortunes in the past decade and made O'Mara the political godfather of St. Louis County and the metropolitan AFL-CIO.
For more information, see All in the Family.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.