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The Ups and Downs of Elevation

August 2, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
The International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 1 has a long history, becoming part of the American Federation of Labor in June 1894. The 2,600 union membership works throughout the metropolitan area, including Nassau and Suffolk counties. They construct elevators on a wide range of projects, from three-story medical complexes to installing new, technologically advanced elevators at One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building.

LaborPress recently interviewed Local 1’s President, Lenny Legotte, and Local 1’s Organizer, Michael Halpin, on the type of training members are required to learn to construct and service elevators, as well as the contractual challenges with some of the world’s largest international corporations, among some other topics.

Technology Upgrades Necessitate Rigorous Training

Local One is one of 17 unions that are part of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and the NY State Building and Construction Trades Council. Members have had to excel at a four-year apprenticeship program before entering the field to work either as constructors or mechanics. They are then required to pass a master’s test to enter the journeymen ranks.

As with most of the building trades, the journeymen are the foot soldiers that do the heavy lifting and day-to-day tasks. According to Legotte, however, Local One is unique because his members possess a subset of building trade skills, including carpentry, ironwork, plumbing, electrical and rigging.

“We unload the trucks that carry the materials and hoist the materials ourselves whereas the other trades rely on operating engineers to do the unloading and hoisting,” said Legotte.

The crème de la crème of Local One are Elevator Adjustors, who not only go for continuing education classes at Local One’s facility in Long Island City, but are also trained by the major elevator manufacturers such as Schindler, FujiTec, Kone and ThyssenKrupp to work on the manufacturers’ newest technologies.

The adjustor is the stopgap when a mechanic cannot troubleshoot a particular problem. Currently, six adjustors are working at One World Trade making sure that the floor stops are good and that the ramping of speed up and ramping of speed down is such that the elevator doors open less than ¼ inch from the floor level.

In the last 10 years, noted Legotte, technological innovation is changing the industry rapidly. On the electronic end, elevators underneath were formerly supported by three traveling cables, each containing 64 wires. They’ve been replaced by one, 30-wire conductor cable that maximizes electrical output. And down the road, and even being used on some current projects, is fiber optic cable that can transmit data at faster speeds.

One of the newer technologies the manufacturers are installing is Destination Dispatch, which has been deployed in the new Times Square buildings such as the Marriott Marquis. The new technology allows for the grouping of passengers for the same destinations into the same elevators, thereby reducing waiting and travel times as opposed to passengers requesting their ascension or descension destination.

Passengers request travel to a particular floor using a keypad or proximity card in the lobby of a building and are immediately directed to an appropriate elevator shaft.

The Big Three

When it comes time to negotiate a new contract for its members, Local One has to sit across the table from the Elevator Manufacturers Association of New York (EMANY), which is comprised of Otis Elevator (a United Technologies Company, which also specializes in military production), Finnish-based Kone and Swiss-based Schindler.

After negotiations are completed with the association, the union then negotiates separately with German-based ThyssenKrupp, Japan-based Fujitec, as well as approximately 50 independents. However, the contract that Local One reaches with ThyssenKrupp is then applied to the 50 independents.
Legotte noted that his union’s market share of elevator construction work is about 90 percent, which is probably the highest among other building trade unions and one reason why the union doesn’t have to rely on project labor agreements to guarantee work for its members.

“We’re very unique among the building trades. We don’t need PLAs because were 90 percent organized. I’ll sign them, but the union doesn’t have to rely upon them,” said Legotte.

But as in any industry, non-union outfits sprout up and grow, such as Rotavele, which has resisted signing a collective bargaining agreement with Local One. A 60-man shop, the company is hired by the Taiwanese-American hotel developer Sam Chang to build “B” hotels such as the Hampton Inn.

While Rotavele has so far resisted, Legotte mentioned, “Our biggest concern is that we don’t want to see mom and pop non-union shops getting contracts to install high-speed elevators with destination dispatch in high-rise buildings.”

2005 Lock Out

When a union has 100 years’ worth of history, it’s bound to have had its share of labor disputes. In 2005, the EMANY locked out 1,500 members of Local 1 at the 11th hour over GPS. According to Legotte, the association members had already installed GPS on the trucks and in the phones Local 1 members used, but the companies wanted to extend the monitoring capabilities of the GPS systems so that they could call the workers at their homes late at night to report for work in emergency situations.

Because the union has essentially two contracts, one with EMANY and the other with ThyssenKrupp, not all 3,000 members of Local 1 in 2005 were locked out. The union leadership decided to put economic pressure on EMANY by allowing the other 1,500 members to continue to work with ThyssenKrupp, Fujitec and the independents.

“We decided to put pressure on the association by letting our members continue working with ThyssenKrupp and the independents because they began to get contracts for new work that normally the association would have won. Our tactic to fight the lockout was to keep half of our membership working in order to ‘subsidize’ the locked out workers whereby the employed members contributed money to a fund to help pay for the locked out workers’ medical coverage,” Legotte said.

Legotte acknowledged the tactic caused friction among the local’s membership, but said, “If the union had told the other companies outside the association that we’re striking, then all the members would’ve been out of work. A strike, lockout or any work stoppage isn’t successful for anybody. I thought it was a good tactic then, but people second guess it all the time.”

Public and Private Sector Contention

LaborPress asked Legotte and Halpin on their views about the current labor landscape where private sector unionization is now less than 10 percent and public sector unions are under attack.

While New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was berating teachers and calling for cuts to public sector unions’ pensions, Christie attended a meeting of the building trades and told them, “You’re my guys. You’re the middle-class in New Jersey. I need you,” according to Legotte.

Legotte recalled an incident at the NJ AFL-CIO political endorsement convention in Trenton last year. Steve Sweeney, NJ Senate President, a former iron worker, voted with Christie to cut public sector unions’ pensions, contributing to the NJ AFL-CIO refusing to endorse Sweeney.

Legotte acknowledged the AFL-CIO’s anger over Sweeney, but said, “He is still better than someone who’s not a union member. He’ll vote 99.5 percent of the time as a union member.”

But he also expressed some frustration over the AFL-CIO’s frustration.

“There’s not one teacher that wouldn’t teach in a school that was built non-union. They would walk straight into that classroom in September.”

Legotte also takes issue with the AFL-CIO for telling everyone not to shop at Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart is building union in New Jersey.

“Building trade members were hurting in New Jersey after 2008. They needed the work. What’s the building trades to do,” questioned Legotte.

According to Legotte, Wal-Mart is signing PLAs and is committed to building union in New York. But the Wal-Mart Free campaign led by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union wants to stop Wal-Mart from entering the New York City market.

Halpin, Local 1’s organizer, said, “If Wal-Mart is going to build in New York, we want to build it. If they don’t build, so be it.”

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