In Philly, little strike sparks a big plan

Union workers gather outside the construction site as union crane operators protest in front of the Comcast tower in Center City. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Most days, only about 30 union crane and construction-hoist operators move equipment and people at the Comcast tower job site — where 1,300 carpenters, laborers, masons, glaziers, and electricians work daily to erect what will soon be the tallest building between New York City and Chicago.

But two Fridays ago, on June 30, their union, though few in number, held a contract protest that shut the job down, sending hundreds of construction workers home, hard hats and coolers in hand.

This past Friday, members of Local 542 of International Union of Operating Engineers met at their hall in Fort Washington and ratified a new three-year contract giving them a $2-an-hour raise.

If it’s not just post-strike posturing, that June 30 protest might produce a concerted effort by the city’s building trades to devise systems to operate more efficiently and lower costs so they can reward the owners of buildings that use union contractors and help those contractors compete against nonunion shops.

John Dougherty leads the Philadelphia Building Trades Council as well as Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“The purpose of this initiative will be to develop partnerships and promote innovative teamwork practices which are responsive to schedule, quality, and cost pressures in the union construction industry,” John Dougherty, business manager of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, said in a statement. “We will be focusing on major issues such as off-site manufacturing and minority inclusion. We’re going to be a do tank, not a think tank.”

Operating engineers run cranes and heavy equipment on highway, major industrial and buildings jobs, like the Comcast tower. Local 542 has nearly 6,200 members, with the smallest group working on buildings. The building group negotiates their contract with the General Building Contractors Association of Philadelphia. That contract expired April 30.

Compensation was never an issue — both sides had long agreed on the $2 raise, bumping the total top package to $74 an hour, including wages, benefits, apprentice training, and marketing money.

At issue were overtime pay and the role of the oiler.

Years ago, heavy equipment needed constant lubrication to operate, but that has changed. Now the oiler, according to union officials, helps maintain equipment and acts as a second set of eyes — for safety — for the crane operators. Apprentices typically fill that role, getting training by maintaining and watching. The contractors said oilers weren’t as necessary as they once were.

But the oiler issue was emblematic of a larger one: the cost of union construction.

“Most of all, we’re trying to advance union construction,” said Benjamin Connors, GBCA president.

On June 21, with talks stalled and the potential threat of a strike that could shut down job sites across the city, union officials gathered in Mayor Kenney’s office with Dougherty, GBCA representatives, Kenney’s labor liaison, Richard Lazar, and others. Neither Kenney nor Dougherty stayed long — Kenney long enough to grab a slice of pizza and Dougherty to set the tone before leaving to visit his wife, seriously ill, in the hospital.

None of the issues were resolved, although the union officials were specifically asked not to shut down the Comcast job.

On June 27, Local 542 operating engineers walked off at least 30 job sites, from Comcast to Temple’s library to the Chester County Hospital. They didn’t set up pickets, and other unions kept working. But, as a practical matter, construction slowed because engineers operate the equipment and elevators that move heavy materials and people.

Union workers gather outside the construction site as crane operators protest in front of the Comcast tower.

After three days of protests and an unproductive bargaining session on June 29, union officials vowed to protest at the Comcast job site the morning of June 30. Officials stressed that it was a protest, not a picket, and the other trades were free to work. They did not.

Dougherty soon reached out to Frank “Mack” Stulb, president of LF Driscoll Co., LLC, the general contractor on the Comcast site. Union officials, Stulb, and others, including Dougherty, huddled at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown hotel from about noon, with Dougherty in and out visiting his wife. Connors called in by phone. His wife had given birth to twins, born prematurely, in April, and the little boy, Alexander, was coming home.

Timing was critical for Comcast.

The crane operators had to return to work the next day to lift the heavy glass exterior windows so the glaziers could install them on Monday, July 3.

After about five hours of talking, nearly solid agreements were reached on some of the key issues in a three-year contract — enough to send crane operators back to work July 1 in advance of ratification.

The issue of overtime was tabled. With construction employment at an all-time high and looming shortages, there would be no need to give concessions in economics.

Another key issue, the role of oilers, was also resolved. Besides their duties as oilers, union apprentices would be able to operate equipment intermittently as long as no journeymen operators were being displaced.

But Local 542 recording secretary Tom Danese said he and business manager Robert Heenan wanted more — they wanted the other building trades to join them in figuring out how all of them, as a group, could work together to lower costs for building owners. “This is major,” Danese said about the new initiative.

In his statement, Dougherty said the new initiative will include major owners and users of construction in the commercial, educational, pharmaceutical, petrochemical, and industrial sectors. The council, he said, will be bringing together leaders from the unions and representatives from various contractors associations, including the GBCA, the National Electrical Contractors Association, and the Mechanical Contractors Association.