Heavy-equipment operators strike at 50 to 60 sites Union rejects offer which doesn't restore Saturday overtime

$15.02 to $15.89 an hour

Action could affect projects at Hopkins and Convention Center

April 10, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Heavy-equipment operators went on strike yesterday at an estimated 50 to 60 construction sites in metropolitan Baltimore, as workers sought to retrieve the Saturday overtime that they gave up during the deep construction downturn of the early 1990s.

The strike began after members of Local 37 of the International Union of Operating Engineers voted down a proposed contract Monday. The offer from five companies represented by the Maryland Heavy and Highway Contractors Association Inc. followed expiration of the union's contract March 31. "The market has recovered substantially, and members feel that portions of the conditions we gave them then we want back, and one of them is Saturday overtime," said Ron DeJuliis, business manager for the Hamilton-based local.

Its members, who make from $15.02 to $15.89 an hour, operate earth-moving equipment, cranes, forklifts and similar machines. The companies represented by the association do mostly road construction and major excavation work, association attorney Frank S. Astroth said.

Mr. DeJuliis was optimistic about prospects for a quick settlement. He said the union is not asking other construction unions to honor its picket lines at projects that include the Baltimore Convention Center expansion, the new cancer center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Baltimore light rail system and expansion at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"We're telling the other unions and the contractors that we want them to go to work," Mr. DeJuliis said. "Our intent is not to harm the owners or the other working people on the job. We just want to resolve our issue."

Officials at the Convention Center and Hopkins said the strike did not affect work on their projects yesterday be-cause the rainy weather already had forced them to call off most or all outdoor work. But work could be interrupted if the strike persists.

Charles Holub, president of Baltimore-based Potts & Callahan Inc., said the association has offered raises totaling $1.35 an hour over the three years of a proposed contract. Wages would rise 55 cents an hour the first year, followed by hourly raises of 45 cents and 35 cents in the later years. Payments to fund health insurance, pensions and other fringe benefits would remain at an average of $5.35 an hour, he said.

But he and Mr. Astroth said they have not offered to restore the automatic Saturday overtime, although they will pay time and a half on Saturday if a worker has already worked 40 hours during that week.

In addition, Mr. Astroth said, Baltimore City government projects pay overtime for all Saturday work because a city ordinance requires it.

"I don't know what they're striking about, and I'm negotiating the contract," Mr. Holub said. "You're not talking about people in poverty. They ain't in the bag line."

Mr. Astroth said the companies with union workers need the extra competitive edge they get from paying straight time on Saturdays.

He said that, despite the industry's uptick since 1994, profit margins in construction remain very low because more contractors bid on each job than was normal in better times.

But Mr. DeJuliis insisted that a shortage of construction workers exists in key fields, despite the loss of more than 30,000 Maryland construction jobs since before the 1990-1991 recession. He said that means markets will force nonunion contractors into the same deal for weekend work that the union is seeking.

"In some areas there might be a little more difficulty, but overall the nonunion guy is going to be paying overtime on Saturdays," Mr. DeJuliis said.

"The good operators aren't going to stay with them if they don't get a good living wage that includes overtime on weekends."

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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