Local leaders may reclaim flood control project from Corps of Engineers to protect jobs

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THE LEVEE, in the foreground, holds back floodwater that has escaped from the Mississippi River, in back, just south of Wood River.
THE LEVEE, in the foreground, holds back floodwater that has escaped from the Mississippi River, in back, just south of Wood River.

Collinsville – Metro-East flood control officials have a major decision to make – in the $20 million range – that could provide more work for local union members, or possibly leave it for non-union workers from out of town.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still refusing to require a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for completion of a $20 million levee improvement on the Mississippi River near Wood River. In the PLA system, unions arrange work planning with contractors to ensure that jobs go smoothly and stay on budget.

That’s become a major frustration for local labor leaders and the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, which is leading the larger effort to improve levees protecting the Metro-East from river surges.

The Council has been relying on the Corps to handle the $20 million cut-off wall job at Wood River because it is a large, expensive and vital part of the overall project. The local share – 35 percent of the cost – would be provided by a sales tax that voters in three local counties approved, generating $11 million year. The Corps would install a wall going down to the bedrock in a section where leaks have frequently been seen.

TRYING TO ENSURE LOCAL WORKERS ARE HIRED

The Council’s policy is to sign a PLA on each part of the levee improvements to ensure that local workers are hired and that the Southwestern Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council will provide  the right numbers of local union workers as the work proceeds.

CORPS REFUSAL

But this summer, Corps officials refused to proceed with a PLA requirement, leaving open the possibility that a contractor could bring in out-of-town workers for the cutoff wall job, even though it would be partially paid for with the local tax money.

Les Sterman, the Council’s supervisor of construction, held a meeting between Corps officials and regional business, labor and government leaders to explain the advantages of PLA and ask the Corps to explain its decision.

The meeting, however, was a disappointment. Sterman said the Corps official had only generalities to offer as their explanation and did not seem to understand how the PLA system works.

“It was a completely inadequate explanation,” he said. “They didn’t even understand how a PLA really works. It was shocking.”

Sterman followed with a letter saying this lack of understanding was grounds to reconsider the decision, but the Corps wrote back to say the PLA concept is still something new to them and will be considered for future projects – but not necessarily for this one.

NOT GIVING UP

Dale Stewart, executive secretary/treasurer for the Building & Construction Trades Council, says he is still determined to win a PLA for the cut-off wall project.

“We’re still fighting for that. We haven’t given up,” he said at a recent Council meeting.

The Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council-AFL-CIO is also hopeful but frustrated with the Corps of Engineers. “You can’t find out who controls that bunch,” said the group’s president, Bill Thurston. “You talk to one, and you’ve got 49 more to talk to.”

Now the Flood Prevention District Council has two options. It could either:

• Drop the fight over the cut-off wall and let the Corps proceed as it will while continuing to use PLAs on the other segments of the levee project.

• Reclaim the cut-off wall project from the Corps, which means a PLA would be used, but local funds would be needed for the entire job instead of just 35 percent.

The Flood Prevention District Council is to meet Nov. 20 to consider the issue.

KEEPING $$ IN THE LOCAL ECONOMY

Sterman said one consideration is that the higher local cost might not be the entire 65 percent remaining balance, because local contractors and workers could probably get the job done for less cost than it would take the Corps to do the job.

“We could do that. We have the money,” he said. “At least it would stay in the local economy.”

Stewart also believes it could work out that way. “We know we can do it,” he said. “If those out-of-town contractors come in, we won’t get anything at all.”

SENDING A MESSAGE

TAKING IT TO THE STREET: Union laborers and operating engineers picketed at the intersection of Illinois Route 143 and Cpl. Belchik Memorial Expressway, by the Mississippi River as part of a campaign to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use a project labor agreement as part of a multi-million project to improve levees protecting the Metro-East from river flooding. Taking the message to the street were (from left) Laborers 218 member Bill Sloan, Laborers Local 338 members Colin Overmeyer and Greg Scott and Operating Engineers Local 520 member Bilejo Henson. –Labor Tribune photo
TAKING IT TO THE STREET: Union laborers and operating engineers picketed at the intersection of Illinois Route 143 and Cpl. Belchik Memorial Expressway, by the Mississippi River as part of a campaign to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use a project labor agreement as part of a multi-million project to improve levees protecting the Metro-East from river flooding. Taking the message to the street were (from left) Laborers 218 member Bill Sloan, Laborers Local 338 members Colin Overmeyer and Greg Scott and Operating Engineers Local 520 member Bilejo Henson.
– Labor Tribune photo

Members of three area unions joined forces to set up a picket recently near a site along the river where Brotcke Well and Pump, of Fenton, Mo., was making test drillings for the cut-off wall project.

Bob McDonald, business manager of Laborers Local 218, said the picket line is part of a campaign to convince the Corps to change its position on the PLA before the Nov. 20 meeting, even though the Corps has so far been resistant to all explanations of how a local PLA can help it with the project.

“We’re not dealing with the same Corps we had 25 years ago,” McDonald said.

On the picket line, Bill Sloan of Laborers Local 218 said the workers were getting a good response from passers-by on Illinois Route 143, who honked their horns and waved their support.

Laborers Local 338 and Operating Engineers Local 520 were also represented on the line.

MOVING AHEAD

Meanwhile, the Flood Prevention District Council continues to move ahead with several other parts of the project that do not involve the Corps of Engineers.

In some cases, the Council has sent notices-to-proceed to the winning bidders, while other parts of the project are now out for bids. The overall project could cost up to $200 million.

Said Sterman: “At least we’re making some progress.”

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