By CARL GREEN
Glen Carbon, IL – Wherever you go in this mining town turned leafy suburb, you’ll see pictures of the coal miner, one of the nation’s most fundamental images of a union worker.
Last week, Glen Carbon’s standing as a union town was ringingly confirmed by a coalition of village board members and working people who blocked an attempt to rescind the village’s Project Labor Agreement (PLA) ordinance.
The measure was adopted June 9 on a 4-2 vote, requiring village construction projects to be completed using PLAs through the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, as most municipalities in Madison County already do.
See previous story: Two more Metro East cities join list of PLA signers
PLA agreements allow the Council to organize a well-trained workforce for a project and promise to prevent labor disputes and get jobs done on time and on budget.
But in June, almost as soon as the vote was taken, opponents began raising questions, saying the item had not had sufficient discussion, that there were wording problems and that it might raise village construction costs.
So Mayor Rob Jackstadt, who said he opposes PLAs, placed a proposal to rescind the vote on the agenda for the July 14 meeting, setting the stage for a showdown in this high-income town of 13,000 residents.
THE ABC ARGUMENT
It turned out to be a pretty one-sided affair. Only two people spoke for the anti-union position. The main one was village resident Jamie Wilkinson, 53, a one-time union carpenter who, as a contractor and officer in the Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC) group, has opposed PLAs for years. ABC promotes non-union construction work nationally.
The other was his plucky wife, Gina, who used to be a project manager for Wilkinson and now runs a shop in downtown Glen Carbon.
Jamie Wilkinson said the board was too hasty in adopting the PLA and should have heard from people with opposing views, such as his. His arguments were that PLA work would not be limited to village residents but would include workers from the region; that PLAs cannot guarantee lower costs, on-time performance or a total lack of labor disputes; that PLAs would discourage non-union contractors from bidding; and that labor problems were reported recently on New York and New Jersey projects.
He told the union workers in the audience they were not the only qualified labor force, but the workers, who had been listening politely, resisted the temptation to loudly answer this challenge.
THE UNION RESPONSE
Instead, Dale Stewart, executive secretary-treasurer of the Trades Council, responded officially, saying in his remarks that the PLA promise to prevent labor stoppages has been upheld throughout his decade in that role.
“We’ve never had a problem on any job,” he said.
He noted that most municipalities in the area already have PLA agreements, along with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Madison County and school districts.
“We’re not asking for anything out of the ordinary,” he said. “All we’re asking is, give us a try, let us show you what we can do. You always have that right to come back and vote it out.
“Give us a chance to show you, and support the working men and women of this area.”
Nine other union supporters spoke, some briefly and some passionately at length. All received strong ovations from the union audience, which filled the room and overflowed into the Village Hall lobby.
Mark Johnson, president of Operating Engineers Local 520, said the PLA concept well suits the region.
“These PLAS were designed for highly union dense-areas,” Johnson said. “Madison County is one of the densest union areas in the country. They allow these jobs to work so much smoother.”
He noted that the Sam’s Club in Edwardsville had union contractors but not a PLA during its recent construction, resulting in some disputes. “You’re looking at 11 labor agreements trying to function on the same job site,” he said. “It works, but it doesn’t work as well as these PLAs do. Instead of 11 agreements, you have one blanket agreement covering everybody.”
‘BEST THING GOING’
Raymond Hunt, an Ironworker from Glen Carbon, said a community relying on union construction helps itself.
“The unions are the best thing going,” he said. “They take care of their people. The non-union people – they work for nothing. They can be fired in a second. If the boss doesn’t like what they’re doing, doesn’t like them personally, they just get rid of them. I’ve seen a lot of it happen. The union people are dedicated and do a good job.
“All throughout Glen Carbon, most work has been union, and look what’s been done. All of it’s on time, and it’s usually under budget, because of the craftsmen in this place right here.”
Nick Dodson, of Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 360 and the Trades Council, described the economic impact of employing local union workers.
“Perhaps a non-union contractor can bring somebody in and pay the prevailing wage. But when they go home to Tennessee – or Kentucky or Mississippi – that money goes home with them,” he said.
“If we’re going to protect our working class, if we’re going to protect the standard of living that we have here, then we need to keep our PLAs in place,” he added. “We need to keep what we have, because what we have here is special. We all work hard, and we all spend our money right back here in the community.
“You can’t say that about somebody who comes in from out of state for a couple of weeks, does the job, and you save 13 cents upfront. But then you lose all that re-spent money, over and over.”
Jackstadt then called on the board members to state their positions, and it broke down into the same lines as the vote taken June 9. Trustees Jorja Dickeman and Mary Beth Williams supported rescinding the ordinance, saying they feared PLAs would reduce competition, raise costs and discriminate against non-union workers.
Trustee Brooke Harmony said the issue has had plenty of discussion.
“This item was discussed at the committee and board level. That was two separate meetings for which the public was notified. We’ve gone down this road before. How much more can we do?”
She added: “The village of Glen Carbon was established by working families. We proudly display the miner all over the village. When I look out my front door, I don’t see half-million dollar homes, I see working families. This community was built on the backs of working men and women, like most of those in this room.
“And now some would like this council to turn our backs towards those same people. I for one will not do that. I am pro-middle class, I am pro-working families and I am pro-local workforce, and for those reasons, I will not be voting to rescind this PLA.”
She received a loud ovation.
Trustees Micah Summers, Steve Slemer and Ross Breckenridge all spoke in favor of the PLA ordinance as well.
Summer said the key to him is that engineers already use prevailing wage amounts to estimate project costs, and that will not change under PLAs, meaning the higher costs some fear will not materialize.
Breckenridge noted: “I’ve driven through states and seen projects without PLAs. They’re disasters. They’re safety hazards. I’m going to back this PLA because I believe in our local workers and I believe they do a great job.”
“To say this was hastily pushed through is just ridiculous,” he added. “I went through all the proper channels to get this through. This PLA is here for a reason, and it’s to have better work, a better economy and to support our men and women out here who are trying to earn a decent wage.”
Dickeman pointed out that other cities have a minimum cost amount that must be exceeded before a PLA is required, such as $100,000 in Edwardsville, and she asked that the village consider one. Breckenridge said the Public Services Committee, which he chairs, is working on the issue and will make a recommendation.
The vote was then taken and it remained 4-2, this time against rescinding the original ordinance.
After the vote, Jackstadt called a recess to allow the union supporters to leave, and the workers finally gave voice to their feelings.
“THANK YOU!” they loudly declared to the board as they began to file out of the room.
Steamfitter from Arkansas has seen what can happen without PLA
(Editor’s note: Chris Gee, a member of Steamfitters Local 439 who came here from Arkansas, gave a moving account at the Glen Carbon Village Board meeting last week of what can happen to a town when Project Labor Agreements and union construction work are abandoned.)
Gee was among those who spoke in support of the village’s PLA ordinance before the board voted not to rescind it. Here is how he told his story:
Good afternoon. I’d like to thank you ladies and gentlemen for your time. I’m pretty unique in this situation. My name is Chris Gee. As you can tell, I have a southern accent, so I’m not originally from here.
I can bear witness to what PLA can do for a community and how it can bring devastation to a community when it leaves.
I was born and raised in a small, southern industrial town, Crossett, Arkansas – middle class families, a wonderful place to be raised, good schools. Everything was fantastic.
The Chamber of Commerce and other people decided to do away with PLAs in the mid-‘80s. When the PLAs left, the money left.
High wages provide good tax revenue for the community. We are trained to do the best quality work. I pay 4 percent union dues. I’ll pay 10 if I have to to be a member of my local.
I love my local, I teach my apprenticeship program, and I take pride in what I do.
I’ve worked all over the United States as a union steamfitter and welder – all over the United States! – and I have seen what unskilled labor produces. I’ve had to go behind them and fix their problems.
And it’s not their fault. There is skilled and there is unskilled, and that’s as plain as I can make it.
You go to a doctor and you pay him a large amount of money because he is educated. These union workers are educated. That’s what you’re paying for.
You’re doing your community a great disservice if you do away with these PLAs, because the budgets will go above what we cost, and the quality will go down.
I’ve seen what it can do to a community. It will dry up!
When I go back home, it’s depressing. The paper mill is still there. It’s profitable, but the wages stayed stagnant.
It’s not good for the community. Small businesses will leave, because the more money we have in our pockets, the more spending power we have out there, and that is a fact.
So I hope you please consider voting for PLAs. All of these people have never witnessed it. I’m living proof of what it can do. Thank you for your time. (Loud ovation) [/box]