By Bendix Anderson
August 3, 2010
Here’s a new idea for union picket lines: A giant inflatable pig. The Pig is a new take on The Rat — an inflatable figure that often stands alongside striking workers in the New York area. The Pig is the invention of Local 46, the Metallic Lathers and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union, which put the pig to work this summer in labor demonstrations in Islip, New York. “He blows up to about 15 feet high,” says Robert Ledwith, Business Manager for Local 46. The Pig also has an evil leer, a black top hat, and polyvinyl dollars spilling out of the pockets of his suit.
From the Pig to project labor agreements, Local 46 is trying out new ideas to bring more jobs to its workers, continuing to grow the union even in tough economic times. That means both fighting for more union jobs and fighting to make union workers more competitive. “You don’t stay the best by standing still,” said Ledwith. I am aggressive in finding work for our men.” Over the last ten years, while many unions lost members, Local 46 grew from 900 to more than 1,500 members. Most are involved in new construction. They cut, bend, and place the steel rebar that forms the spine of reinforced concrete.
Difficult economic times hit these workers especially hard. “We don’t have recessions; we have depressions,” Ledwith says. Roughly a quarter of the workers at Local 46 are now out of work. Many reinforced concrete construction projects have been delayed or canceled.
Growing the Union
Local 46 is engaging in tough negotiations to bring work to its members. This summer, the union joined the other construction trades to sign the project labor agreement (PLA) for the latest phase of the Queens West development in Long Island City.
The massive job will require 2.1 million square feet of reinforced concrete, says Ledwith. The PLA allows the contractors to save 20 percent on the cost of hiring Local 46 members — but individual workers won’t feel the pay cut. Local 46 plans to make up the difference using money from its “Target Fund,” to which all union workers contribute a small amount from every hours pay.Under the PLA, Local 46 also agreed to an up to 8-hour workday, up from 7 hours, common holidays with other unions, and a guaranteed no work stoppage clause.
Local 46 also joined the fight to approve Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, N.Y., attending dozens of demonstrations and community meetings. The union is also investing in its members. Local 46 spent $2.3 million to buy a building in Woodside neighborhood of Queens that is now the home of its apprentice training program. The new Learning Center has 27,000 square feet of classroom, hands-on training, and showroom space. Before 2005, the program taught apprentices in improvised classrooms, like the basements of public schools.
Local 46 often invites architects to the Learning Center to show off the capabilities of its union craftsmen and the strength of reinforced concrete construction. The Learning Center is also the home of Local 46’s ‘Rod Chomper’ rebar cutting and bending machine. The $40,000 machine is capable of bending rebar more than two and a half inches thick. The best thing about the Rod Chomper is that it creates work for the union. When architects and contractors chose between Local 46’s reinforced concrete and other types of construction, it helps to know the appropriate cutting and bending machine is available.
Local 46 is also an active organizer. Ledwith himself has spent many long hours on picket lines. He has been arrested several times and in 1985 he was attacked by two men wielding baseball bats. Ledwith suffered major injuries but returned to a picket line that afternoon. However, it took six months of pain before he had fully healed from the attack. “I’ve always pushed the limits,” he said.
Most recently, Local 46 took its message to the streets by renting a truck from Mobile Billboard Corp. The truck carries a 20-foot long union message. In In 2008, the truck spent weeks in front of the offices of Lehman Bros to protest the bank’s financing of a non-union condominium project. The condo developer sued the union for defamation, but eventually dropped the suit after the union refused to settle.