Looking out for the working man | VailDaily.com

Looking out for the working man

Kathy Heicher/Eagle Correspondent
Vail Daily/Bret HartmanLocal carpenters cut a section off a beam Tuesday while framing a new home in Wildridge.

In this valley, where the trend seems to be that any person who can swing a hammer can declare themselves a carpenter, trade unions aren’t a dominant factor on the labor scene.

Still, there have been labor activists in the valley for decades, and trade unions do have a historical presence, particularly on larger commercial and public projects. During the building boom of the 1970s, union leaders say, they could man a big commercial job in the valley with all local union hands. Jim Gleason, president of the Mountain West Regional Council of Carpenters, says he remembers a time when there were four or five different carpenter’s unions on the Western Slope; and 30 to 40 percent of the carpenters working in the area were union affiliated.

These days, a single carpenter’s local serves the area from Idaho Springs west to the Utah Border, and statewide, union carpenters comprise only about 10 percent of the workforce in that trade. If a big union project pops up in the valley, labor leaders say there’s a good chance they would have to bring union tradesmen in from outside the county.

There’s a variety of factors at play. The recent economic slump has resulted in fewer union projects, forcing many tradesmen to seek work elsewhere. Tradesmen also tend to shy away from the high cost of resort community living. In addition, the nature of the local business climate tends to foster an independent, entrepreneurial spirit in many tradesmen, prompting them to strike out on their own. There’s plenty of contractors who know how to circumvent the rules when subbing out a job; and there’s no shortage of people willing to work for cash with no benefits; and who don’t want to be encumbered by union dues or union obligations.

For the unions, it all adds up to an uphill battle, and continuing erosion in the power of organized labor.

“It makes you wonder what’s going to happen,” says Gleason, whose regional organization has about 3,000 active members, of whom about 100 live between Vail and Grand Junction. Typically, about 80 of those members are fully employed, although those numbers wax and wane with the number of active union jobs at any time.

“It’s becoming more difficult, even in just the last five years, to find resort work,” Gleason says.

“We are looking at a small piece of an increasingly dwindling pie,” says Mike Toughill of Eagle, president of the Carpenter’s Local. “I hope that will change.”

A 30-year union member, Toughill is unabashed about being a “salesman” for the organization.

“Union tradesmen are somewhat like dinosaurs. I honestly think there is a need in the working community for something like us. Everybody in the construction community benefits,” he adds.

What unions offer

Toughill acknowledges unions can be a touchy subject and, he says, trade unions no longer have the kind of power they thrived on decades ago.

“The pendulum has swung to the point where there is very little power. In the past 30 years, there is no union power in Colorado,” he says.

What he and Gleason both point out is that one of the most obvious benefits of using union labor is the employer is assured of getting a trained employee.

“That is a significant need that is being met by the trades (unions),” says Toughill.

Gleason says the carpenter’s union has a four-year apprentice program. Members are taught skills that range from blueprint reading and layout to education on metal framing, hardware and certification for scaffold work. The Eagle Valley has been the site of some of that on-the-job training. After four years, the carpenter is awarded journeyman status.

“It is my contention that a properly trained individual makes less mistakes,” says Toughill. “Everyone is hurt if you don’t have enough people to perform the jobs necessary because of a lack of training.”

Both men say union workers provide a benefit to the community. The unions not only provide training for employees, but also provide benefits packages that include health insurance and retirement. Gleason says the union provides a bargaining advantage for its members. Factors such as wages and hours of work are set before a worker gets to a project. A multi-employer benefit plan, as well as a pension plan, follows a worker from employer to employer. Thirty years of continuous service with the union entitles a tradesman to retirement benefits.

“I’m tickled with what we can offer a young man or woman that allows them some really unique opportunities,” says Toughill.

Quite often, contractors hiring non-union labor offer a higher hourly wage, but without benefits.

“It’s a cash world,” observes Gleason.

“You offer a young man an extra $5 or $6 (per hour) on a check, they don’t worry about retirement, or about whether their wife’s baby will be paid for by insurance or welfare,” Toughill says. All too often, he adds, those costs come back to the community, when hospital bills can’t be paid, or in the form of expensive corrections on structures built by tradesmen who perhaps lacked the necessary training.

“When a union worker’s wife goes to the hospital to have a baby, they have insurance. It isn’t the general community paying for it,” says Toughill. “Those are factors the general community looks at. We take some of the burden away.”

Trade unions also offer some protection for the employee, Gleason and Toughill says. Union jobs are typically covered by a bond. If a contractor goes belly-up, union tradesmen are assured they will still get a paycheck.

“You don’t have to talk to very many construction workers to find somebody who has been stiffed,” Toughill says.

The challenges

Gleason says unions struggle to find a level playing field. When the economy stumbles, and work slows down, Gleason says, more unscrupulous employers tend to get the work. One of the techniques commonly used is the “mis-classification” of tradesmen as sub-contractors, a practice Gleason says is particularly prevalent in drywall and framing. Contractors know how to work the system so they can hire people under an arrangement that involves straight payment without taxes, Social Security contributions or federal income tax.

“The contractor doesn’t have to pay social security, unemployment, or worker’s compensation. That’s about a 30 percent mark-up when you talk about overhead,” Gleason says.

Gleason also expresses some concern about what he terms an “underground economy,” in which undocumented laborers work for lower wages.

“It becomes harder and harder for legitimate employers. You can’t compete with that, really,” he says.

Still, there is some union work to be found in the valley: the Sheraton project in Avon; an upgrade at the Vail Valley Medical Center; and the Snowcloud project at Bachelor Gulch. Many of the larger projects in the county in recent years have been union jobs, including some school construction and the building of the newest libraries.

“We have people who need skilled tradesmen, and are willing to pay for it,” says Toughill.

Toughill says there’s fewer young men coming into the trade unions these days. The average age of a union carpenter these days falls in the mid-40s, says Toughill. He says first-year apprentices drop out at a rate of 60 percent.

Non-union perspective

Gypsum resident Andy Beck owns Beck Construction, a local company with between 35 and 60 employees, depending on the demands of the local economy. Beck got his start in the valley 32 years ago. He spent his first year as a carpenter in a union apprenticeship program; then struck out on his own.

His company handles primarily single-family home construction; and is not a union shop. Beck says he offers a less-formalized version of some of the programs the unions advocate, such as training, yearly reviews, and mentoring programs.

“We try to build from within. We have some options for employees to learn as they go,” says Beck. He says he also offers on air and water quality, said Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt, an outspoken foe of mag chloride.

That’s a topic that should be considered, said Lee Cassin, environmental health director for the city of Aspen. She believes governments are asking the wrong question when they try to decide whether they should use mag chloride or sand. They should be asking what alternatives are available, she said.

Cassin is a proponent of acetate deicers. They can be used at colder temperatures than mag chloride, and research shows they don’t have as serious environmental consequences, she said. Acetate deicers are used at the Pitkin County Airport.

The drawback of acetate deicers is the cost. They are significantly more expensive than mag chloride, Cassin said. But when corrosion and environmental impacts are factored in, she believes the price of acetate deicers can be justified.

“I think the key is spending the money to do it right the first time,” she said.

Despite her best efforts, she wasn’t able to convince Aspen to go that route. Aspen, like Basalt, prohibits use of mag chloride and uses sand and gravel. The city of Aspen constantly sweeps its streets to avoid adding to its air quality problems.

Basalt assistant manager Betsy Suerth said the town purchases three-eighths-inch rock that has been washed free of contaminants to try to minimize environmental effects. The town public works department also uses the gravel sparingly on Two Rivers Road as a way to protect the river.

As drivers can attest, the public works crew has dialed in its approach to Two Rivers Road this winter. Use of gravel was heavy during the first few storms. Gravel has been used more sparingly since.

Kristine Crandall of the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy agreed with Cassin that both mag chloride and sand have their drawbacks. Their impacts on the river and environment really can’t be judged without studying application rates and amounts, she said.

“From the conservancy’s perspective, all deicers have the potential to enter waterways, raising concerns about pollution impacts,” Crandall said. “This is a type of storm water runoff, an issue that we have been trying to heighten awareness about in communities throughout the valley, encouraging proactive best management practices.”

Overall, she said, the best practice would be using deicers sparingly and in minimum concentrations.

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