Picket could delay housing work

Union workers are threatening to expand picketing at the site of the new residence halls.
Friday, January 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:15 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Unionized plumbers and pipefitters on the Southwest Campus Housing Project construction site at MU are threatening to have a full-blown picket that could delay construction of the $38 million project.

Right now, the union members are taking turns on an “information picket;” that is, telling non-union workers at the site that if they come through the union workers’ gate, a picket will go up that could stop construction. The picket could influence union workers in other trades on the site to stop working as well.

Work on the residence hall project has not been delayed because non-union workers have their own gate onto the construction site.

University officials still expect the primary contractor to finish the project by its summer 2006 completion goal.

“The university has a contract with Walton Construction Co. with this particular project, and they are responsible for making sure the project is completed on time,” MU spokesman Christian Basi said.

The union members said Wednesday they do not plan on ending the picket, which began about three weeks ago.

“Everybody outside the union, they have substandard rates and work,” said Jim McGrath, a member of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562 and a pipefitter for 22 years. “We’ve gone to school for five years to get an apprenticeship and take classes every so often to update our work skills.”

Questec Constructors Co. is a subcontractor for plumbing not associated with a union. Union members are upset that non-union workers have been employed.

“They got hired off the street,” said Cecil Warren Jr., a member of the union and a pipefitter for 25 years. “They have no experience at all.”

Colleen White, the division director for the Missouri Division of Labor Standards, said picketing is not uncommon on construction sites where union and non-union workers are employed. She said it’s like an advertisement to tell the public a contractor is supposedly paying substandard wages.

MU requires all contractors and subcontractors to pay the prevailing wage rates as established by the state. Harriet Green-Sappington, MU’s assistant director of facility development, said MU employs an individual to monitor all contract labor projects.

Questec said it pays its plumbers more than union plumbers are paid after the cost of fringe benefits are deducted.

Scott Boyd, president of Questec, said that including the cost of fringe benefits, the union plumbers are paid about $27.41 per hour, compared to $22.23 for Questec plumbers. Although the hourly pay for Questec plumbers is lower than that for union plumbers, Questec takes out only $3.76 of the hourly pay for fringe benefits, for which the union deducts about $10.32, Boyd said. A union spokesman could not be reached to confirm this figure.

“They are just upset because a non-union company got the job, and they want all union workers,” Boyd said.

During the informational picket, union members rotate watching their gate to make sure non-union workers and supplies do not come through.

Ralph Tremain, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, called this the “reserve gate system.”

“Once the non-union workers go through the gate reserved for union workers, then that taints the gate and the two gates are no longer separated,” Tremain said.

This means a picket can be held at the gate of the employer with whom the workers are in dispute — in this case the non-union gate.

“If we put up a picket, there’s other union members out here, and if they honor that picket they won’t cross the picket, and we’ll shut the job down,” Warren said.

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