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Unions in hurry to certify

Major Milwaukee projects carry residency requirements

Spurred by projected hiring requirements, local unions are in a rush to certify members in Milwaukee’s Residents Preference Program before the first of three major projects breaks ground in fall.

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.’s downtown tower is up first. The other projects, Irgens Partners LLC’s 833 East and Rick Barrett’s The Couture, both planned for East Michigan Street, are further down the pipeline, but some people already are worried about finding enough Milwaukee residents to meet potential local hiring requirements.

To qualify for the Residents Preference Program, according to city ordinance, a worker must live in Milwaukee and either have worked less than 1,200 hours in the previous year or not have worked at all within 30 days.

Jeff Fleming, spokesman for Milwaukee’s Department of City Development, said the Northwestern tower has a 40 percent RPP requirement, and it is too soon to say whether the other projects will include similar benchmarks.

But Ken Kraemer, executive director of Building Advantage, a Milwaukee-based organization that promotes the hiring of union workers, said he expects the requirements to be similar on all three projects.

If construction of the three towers overlapped, he said, that could strain the number of RPP-certified workers.

The Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/BIG STEP, Building Advantage and the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council are trying to ensure existing union members who qualify are certified.

Mike Fabishak, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee and co-chairman of the WRTP/BIG STEP board of directors, said he believes the industry can support the projects. The industry still is rebounding from the recession, he said, and the bump in activity could lure former workers back.

But representatives of at least one local union, Pewaukee-based Local 139 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, are warier.

Guy Yuker, dispatcher for the local, is heading up the certification effort and said 127 members live in Milwaukee. Forty-three of those members are certified, but some of them specialize in paving, he said, and might not be a good fit for vertical construction.

But 40 percent, he said, is “extremely high.”

Terry McGowan, president of Local 139, said if a hiring percentage is more than what the industry can support, the danger might extend beyond missing benchmarks.

“If you set goals too high,” he said, “you’re going to create an environment where safety is thrown to the side.”

The union could work with contractors to find new apprentices who live in Milwaukee, McGowan said, but it takes about four years for those workers to become journeymen. Apprentices must be supervised on jobsites, and the union has its own ratios of journeymen per apprentice to ensure safety.

A union local cannot just open the floodgates, McGowan said, and throw fresh-faced Milwaukee workers onto a site to meet a hiring requirement.

“These goals make it difficult,” he said, “to stay within the parameters of our ratios.”

McGowan said he sees the merit in RPP requirements but would prefer the city talk to construction professionals to determine what is attainable rather than prescribing a 40 percent threshold.

But Fleming said the city will not do that.

“While some people may see challenges in meeting those numbers, the first response should not be, ‘Let’s reduce the percentages,’” he said. “It should be, ‘Let’s look for other solutions to ensure Milwaukee workers are connected to Milwaukee projects.’”

Until a general contractor is chosen for the Northwestern tower, Kraemer said, he cannot predict the number of hours of on-site labor, and therefore the number of RPP hours, the job will require.

But, he said, based on the response so far, local unions should be able to meet requirements on all three projects.

“There’s a problem,” Kraemer said. “There’s a solution.”

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