Slowdown continues at Philly-area construction sites

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A Philadelphia-area union work stoppage has slowed construction on buildings such as the new Comcast Corp. tower.

Talks are scheduled to resume Thursday in hopes of ending a contract impasse that has slowed construction for two days at many of the region’s major projects, including the new Comcast tower, East Market, the Philadelphia Art Museum, Chester County Hospital, and Temple University’s library.

The contract between the General Building Contractors Association of Philadelphia and the union representing crane operators, Local 542 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, expired April 30. But the union and the GBCA, which represents the contractors that hire Local 542 members, had continued to negotiate. The union pulled its operators off job sites Tuesday.

Picket lines have not been set up, giving other trades the opportunity to continue on the job and allowing projects to move forward.

Because the workers move beams and heavy materials, the impact on construction projects will become greater with each passing day, as those materials are depleted. Tom Danese, the union’s recording secretary, estimated that 300 of Local 542’s workers are out on strike, affecting at least 30 job sites.

Danese said the workers will not return until an agreement is reached.

“This is the most modest kind of job action possible,” said Anthony Wigglesworth, who leads the Philadelphia Area Labor Management Committee, a group that helps resolve disputes among unions and between unions and contractors on job sites. It does not negotiate contracts.

“If they put up pickets, thousands of people would not be working,” Wigglesworth said. As it is, “you have hundreds out because of logistics.”

Benjamin Connors, president of the GBCA, said strikes hurt the ability of contractors that use union labor to win jobs, and make owners reevaluate whom they select for construction jobs. He added that union contracts need to reflect changes in the construction industry.

There is no disagreement about core compensation — an increase of $2 an hour on the general package over the course of the contract. At issue is double time after eight hours’ work on Saturdays, after 10 hours’ work on weekdays. Sunday double time is still in place.

Also in dispute is the use of “oilers,” who act as signal men for heavy cranes and other construction equipment, and also maintain the equipment. Over time, the union has agreed to eliminate their use on smaller machines. The GBCA would like to widen that scope.

A third issue is how funding for the GBCA should be collected. Right now, some contractors pay into the GBCA at a rate of  15 cents a man hour, Danese explained. The GBCA would like the bills for those funds to be generated by the union, but the union thinks the GBCA should send out its own bills.

The union emailed letters to contractors, explaining its position and indicated it is willing to discuss flexibility on issues such as weekend overtime. Danese said the union already offers concessions to help contractors win bids for jobs at airports or on highways. Similar concessions could be available, he said, for building jobs, but other trades would also have to be willing to offer similar deals on a job-by-job basis.