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Opposition to ironworkers bill grows

By Paul Snyder

Authors of a bill that would require licensure of ironworkers in Wisconsin are working on amendments to quell growing opposition in the construction industry.

Critics argue the bill is a thinly veiled jurisdiction grab and say passage will result in contractors losing flexibility to select workers and nonunion or other unions losing the ability to do ironwork jobs they have performed for years.

Supporters argue the bill increases on-site safety and say anyone can continue doing the work. They will just need a license.

State Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, is one of the bill’s co-sponsors and chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Labor. She said the authors want to discuss the amendments this week with one of the bill’s outspoken opponents, Mark Reihl, executive director of the Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters.

“We’re hoping to at least get the carpenters on board,” Sinicki said.

That might be a tall order.

“Any reading of this bill will see it’s slanted toward ironworkers,” Reihl said. “I’ll keep talking with ironworkers and the bill’s authors, but I don’t really know what changes can be made to get our support.”

The bill’s definition of ironwork includes raising, placing and tying girders, columns, and other structural steel members; securing post tensioning cables on buildings and bridges; installing ornamental ironwork such as curtain walls; and rigging and raising wind turbines. That’s all work that is handled to varying degrees, Reihl said, by his members.

And the opposition does not stop there. The Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin Inc. and the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin and Greater Milwaukee have filed their opposition against the bill. The Wisconsin Builders Association has also come out against it.

“It’s too broadly written,” said Brad Boycks, WBA’s director of government and political affairs. “Right now they have ironwork including cement work, tying rebar, some things that would be included in building homes.”

The bill’s primary author, state Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Fort Atkinson, did not return calls before deadline to discuss amendments.

But Colin Teska, business manager for Milwaukee-based Iron Workers Local 8, said any arguments that the bill is a jurisdictional grab for ironworkers are unfounded.

“Anybody can get the license,” he said. “Apparently we care more about safety than some of these other groups do.”

Safety is not a sound argument to stand behind, Reihl said. Carpenters who perform work included in the bill receive training and meet federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

“Contractors wouldn’t continue working with us if we weren’t safe,” he said.

If enacted, the bill would set up two classes of licensed ironworkers: master and journeyman.

Both categories could be grandfathered into licensure. Master ironworkers would have to provide evidence of having worked 15,000 hours in the 15 years before applying for the license, and journeymen would have to provide evidence of 8,000 hours of work in the eight years before applying, as well as proof of completing an apprenticeship program.

Reihl said it’s unlikely carpenters doing the work have accrued enough hours to qualify for being grandfathered.

The bill also requires the Department of Commerce to determine the rules and testing to license ironworkers, but does not detail what rules and testing must include.

In a difficult business climate, contractors do not want increased regulation, said Jim Boullion, the AGC of Wisconsin’s government affairs director.

“This would just raise costs and make it more difficult to get jobs done on time,” he said. “As long as workers are safely trained and can do the work, contractors should be able to use them.”

Boullion said it’s unlikely the bill could be amended to a point where the AGC would support it.

The contractors’ opposition came as no great surprise to Brent Emons, a former ironworker who retired last year after 37 years in the industry. He said he lost 10 friends to ironworking accidents during his time in the industry, and although accident rates have dropped in recent years, the state should not pass up the opportunity to reduce them further.

“Some general contractors just want the best of both worlds,” Emons said. “They want to be able to put anybody on the job without any skills or training.

“I have a problem with any lobbyist who’s never worked in the field trying to squash this.”

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