Striking sheet metal workers want bigger piece of the building boom
When the sheet metal workers of Local 17 voted to go on strike last week, the concessions they made during the economic downturn loomed large in their minds.
Construction work dried up as the recession took hold, and the union agreed to smaller wage package increases to keep contractors’ costs down and improve their chances of beating out cheaper, nonunion shops for jobs. Local 17 had to put more of that money into funding pensions and skyrocketing health care costs, and raises suffered as a result.
“Times were tough, so the members ate that, and they’re well aware of that,” said Bobby Butler, business manager for Sheet Metal Workers Local 17, which has 1,400 members in Boston. Today, a long-running building boom continues unabated, and sheet metal workers are so busy they have to bring in extra help from other regions.
With current demand — and recent sacrifices — in mind, the union turned down an offer from the contractors’ association that would have increased the total wage package by $10 an hour over three years, to nearly $97 an hour, including pension and health insurance contributions.
Among the main sticking points: the contractors’ refusal to kick in more to increase apprentice wages and to pay double time when workers put in more than 10 hours on a weekday, and eight hours on weekends.
The previous contract provided a $10-an-hour increase over five years, but workers only saw a $1.79 increase in their hourly pay during that time, Butler said. Currently, journeymen make about $44 an hour and average just 1,680 hours of work a year, according to the union, which comes out to an annual salary of about $74,000.
“There’s economic prosperity out there; we just want to share in it,” Butler said. “That’s all we want.”
Kevin Gill, chairman of the negotiating committee for the Boston chapter of the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, which represents about 30 owners and companies, did not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday, but said in an interview last week that the offer was fair.
“We’ve taken very good care of them over the years,” said Gill, owner of McCusker-Gill Inc., a sheet metal contractor in Hingham that employs 270 full-time union sheet metal workers. “For us to increase [the proposal] any more makes absolutely no sense . . . it’s just not good business.”
A week and a half into the strike, which started Aug. 1 and has slowed work at hundreds of job sites, the union and contractors’ association have not been able to come to an agreement, and no further meetings are currently on the books.
Sheet metal work is difficult, Butler said. Members work on roofs and in crawl spaces, often in sweltering heat or bone-chilling cold. When they retire, he said, they often end up needing surgery on their knees, backs, or shoulders.
They get no paid vacations or holidays. And if a job site shuts down because of the weather, they don’t work.
Michael Jones, 34, who has been a member of Local 17 since he was 16, works at Harvard University as a project manager overseeing sheet metal work for Boston Air Systems. He lives in Hanson and picks up workers on the way to limit the $30 to $40 they have to spend every day to park. Jones makes a good living, but when he sees the owners’ expensive cars, hears about their multimillion-dollar homes, and thinks about all the construction work pouring in, he wants more.
“Our raises have not kept up with the cost of living, and this [contract] does not get us there,” he said.
When Local 17 member Shamaiah Turner, 32, was an apprentice, she worked a second job as a bartender to make ends meet. Now that she has completed the five-year training program, Turner is hoping to move out of the Dorchester three-decker she shares with 11 housemates. But getting a place of her own is impossible, she said.
“I’d like to be in the middle class,” said Turner, who works in a fabrication shop in the Seaport District making ductwork for J.C. Cannistraro. “I’m just starting to get a foothold, but as I’m getting a foothold, the cost of living is rising.”
“We work hard, we put our bodies on the line for our jobs every day,” she said. “We’re just looking for fair compensation.”