About 1,400 sheet metal workers went on strike Wednesday after their union rejected a proposal that would have provided a wage and benefits package totaling nearly $97 an hour. According to the contractors negotiating with the union, the package would have made the workers the highest paid members of the construction trade in the Boston market, though the union disputed that assertion.
The walkoff will affect hundreds of job sites, said Kevin Gill, chairman of the negotiating committee for the Boston chapter of the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ Association, which represents about 30 owners and companies. With no sheet metal work being done, he said, “We’ll very quickly be holding up other trades, and that’s just going to be an absolute disaster.”
The union, Sheet Metal Workers Local 17, noted that the workers made sacrifices during the economic downturn, although it did not provide details.
“It’s vital for our region and for our communities that workers are able to meaningfully share in the prosperity generated by the expanding development boom,” Local 17 business manager Bob Butler said in a statement. “When times were tough, our members stepped up and made sacrifices for the good of our contractors and the good of our industry. Now that business is booming, workers should share in the prosperity.”
Some job sites, including the Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett, have labor agreements with “no strike” clauses that would require sheet metal workers to stay on the job. But because sheet metal workers manufacture the parts they install and manufacturing facilities are shut down because of the strike, Gill said, those job sites may run out of material within a week.
Under the contract that just expired, employers pay journeymen $44.11 an hour, plus pension and health insurance contributions, in addition to paying into a number of funds, which adds up to a package worth $86.69 an hour.
The contractors offered a proposal that would have raised the package by $10 an hour over three years, said Gill, owner of McGusker-Gill Inc., a sheet metal contractor in Hingham that employs 270 full-time union sheet metal workers.
The union, which determines how the total wage package is divvied up, pushed for a bigger raise, as well as an increase in apprentice pay and a bump up in overtime pay to double time.
Unlike in most labor actions, it was the employers, not the union, that went public first.
“We don’t have anything to hide,” Gill said, noting that a number of his employees told him that they felt “railroaded” into striking, and that they were “embarrassed” to be on the picket line. “I think it’s an absolute travesty that this strike has happened, and I think that it puts a real black eye on the union construction industry.”
The union said 98 percent of the workers voted against the deal.
“We take issue with the way some have characterized recent negotiations,” the union said in a statement. “We will be exercising our fundamental and democratic right to take collective action, including through a strike, in order to defend the ability of workers to join and remain in the middle class at a time when wage inequality is skyrocketing and the cost of living is increasing across the nation.”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.