Belleville – Metro East plumber Nick Dodson got a firsthand look at working conditions in right-to-work Louisiana last month, and he didn’t like what he saw one bit.
“It’s a very ugly situation down south; I wouldn’t wish it on a dog,” Dodson told the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council last week.
“That’s why what we do is so important here and why we have to fight to keep what we have.”
Dodson is a member of Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 360, based in Collinsville, and also a vice president of the Central Labor Council representing building trades.
He was in New Orleans from Jan. 5 to Jan. 17, working on the new, “hurricane-proof” VA hospital now under construction to replace the one damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“Going down there and seeing those working conditions – even though it was a federal union project – was eye-opening and extremely disappointing,” Dodson told the council.
“The wages were low to start with, but what we don’t put up with up here is that there is no time-and-a-half after eight hours unless you already have 40, and there is no time-and-a-half on Saturday unless you have 40 in. That’s something I haven’t dealt with since I was 9 years old.”
Compensation was not available for tools, required blood tests or the pre-opening screening.
“Everything else that we normally expect compensation for up here, without question, is not compensated,” Dodson said.
Lunch breaks could not be taken inside the building, he added. “You have to go outside – although there is no shelter,” he said. “So if it’s raining, you sit out in the rain and enjoy your lunch. If you try to get out to your car – if it hasn’t been stolen or broken into – you won’t have time to get back, and if you’re not back in time after lunch, you’re docked in pay.”
The $1 billion hospital construction, called “Project Legacy,” broke ground in 2010, next to the new University Medical Center, as parts of a 2.4 square-mile biomedical corridor. Clark/McCarthy Healthcare Partners has had some 1,100 workers a day on the job.
The VA hospital is on a 30-acre site, will have 200 beds, 1.6 million square feet of medical facility space and two 1,000-car garages. All critical functions will be at least 20 feet above grade to protect against hurricanes; it’s designed “upside down” in that key functions that usually are in the basement will be on the fourth floor, including the kitchen and utilities access.
The project also includes a boat dock and helipad, occupancy that can be expanded to 1,000 and an energy plant with enough fuel to run the hospital for a week during a bad storm.
The work is to be finished in 2016.
After his experience in January, Dodson said he had seen enough of the massive project. It makes him all the more wary of the much-rumored Republican push for right-to-work legislation in Illinois under new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“If Mr. Rauner gets his way, we’re going to enjoy those same conditions that they have down there,” he said. “What we’re fighting to keep up here is our working conditions and to be treated like decent human beings. They don’t have that down there.
“That’s why we have to be involved. That’s why we have to stay involved, come to the meetings, and do the things we need to do.”
He urged council members to keep trying to get more union locals involved in the council’s work.
“If we don’t continue to fight for what we’ve got, we’re going to be just like they are down there,” he said. “And we don’t want to be that way. It’s not fit for human beings.”