Labor deal struck for new bridge over lake

ADDISON — People traveling by the site of the former Champlain Bridge have been noticing the beginnings of work on a new span, though it appears area laborers will have limited participation in the almost $70 million project.
Colorado-based Flatiron Constructors recently negotiated a project labor agreement (PLA) with five trade unions based in New York and Vermont. Under terms of the PLA, the trade unions will gather lists of workers from which Flatiron will make hires based on need and qualifications. Applicants do not need to be affiliated with any union to be placed on the referral list, according to Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, whose district includes Addison.
“It’s going to come down to your experience matching what (Flatiron) needs,” Lanpher said.
Flatiron released details of the PLA at a meeting with New York state and Vermont officials, including Lanpher, Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes; Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton; and  state Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, and Harold Giard, D-Bridport.
Some of the PLA details, according to Lanpher, include:
• Unions are to pull Vermonters and New Yorkers from the list in an equitable fashion.
• Flatiron has the right to decline any of the unions’ recommended hires.
• If the unions do not fill a Flatiron labor request with 48 hours of when it is given, Flatiron has the right fill that slot or slots from another source.
• Union and non-union workers will be weighted with the same priority on the workers lists. Also, non-union workers cannot be pressured into joining a union, though they will have dues collected from their checks for the representation they will be receiving.
• Those workers who make the cut will be paid the New York prevailing wage (inclusive of benefits), which is $47 per hour.
Local officials had anticipated that scores of area workers would be needed to work on the new Champlain Bridge, a “modified network tied arch” span targeted for completion by Oct. 9, 2011. But Addison County lawmakers reported that Flatiron is likely to limit its local hires to around 50, with about 25 on the job at any given time. The balance of the workforce is to be filled out with specialized workers through Flatiron and various subcontractors, according to Lanpher.
“There are not going to be a lot of jobs for people without specific skills,” Ayer said. “It’s disappointing, in that there aren’t as many jobs for people who aren’t bridge builders.”
And there’s not much either state can do about that, Ayer noted.
“(Flatiron) technically is a private business contracted to do public work,” Ayer said. “There is only so much influence we can have.”
Indeed, it’s become clear that the rising tide of the Champlain Bridge construction project will not substantially lift Addison County’s economic boat, officials said.
“The PLA is not the solution to our employment problems,” Jewett said.
While he and Lanpher said workers should not hesitate to apply, they added it is clear that Flatiron is looking to fill out the bulk of its workforce with people who have specialized skills beyond basic general construction, truck driving and/or laborer qualifications.
Two phone calls seeking comment from officials at Flatiron’s new Addison office went unreturned as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday. The NYSDOT is taking the lead in the project. Efforts to garner input from the NYSDOT for this story were unsuccessful at press time.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) had opposed the concept of a state-mandated PLA. But John Zicconi, director planning, outreach and community affairs for VTrans, said the agency had no problem with Flatiron negotiating its own PLA with union groups.
“To have a local clearinghouse to help them vet the skill-set of the workforce — we can see how that would be helpful to them,” Zicconi said. “We didn’t want to be in a position of telling them how to do that business.”
Lisa Cloutier is owner of the No Bridge Restaurant, located just a stone’s throw away from the project site. She said she has heard some of her customers voice frustration about the small number of job opportunities at the bridge site. Cloutier has handed out the trade union contact information to customers inquiring about job prospects.
The union hiring halls include the Burlington-based New England Regional Council of Carpenters; Plattsburgh-based Laborers Local 186; Ironworkers Local 12 of Plattsburgh; IUOE Local 106 of Glenmont, N.Y.; and Albany-based Bricklayers Local 2.
Cloutier said she feels bad for those who have not been able to land a job. She is glad, however, to see activity at the project site, which can be seen from her window. Closure of the bridge last October hurt her and many other businesses in Addison, Bridport, Shoreham and across the lake in Crown Point.
“I’m happy for everything we have gotten so far,” Cloutier said. “I can’t wait for that bridge.”
Zicconi said a lot of the initial work on the bridge will take place beneath the water, on piers and the support system for the massive span. Major advances on the project will be evident to passersby several months from now, as above-surface components of the bridge are put into place — including the entire middle span, which is being built off-site and will be floated into place on a barge sometime next year.
Flatiron has 500 days in which to complete the project.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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