Lawsuit by carpenters union targets YouthBuild program

By Stuart R. Wahlin
Staff Writer

Carpenters Local 792 filed a complaint in federal district court March 11, asking that Comprehensive Community Solutions, Inc. (CCS), which operates the Rockford YouthBuild program, pay the sum of $48,785.76 as an arbitration award.

The complaint came as a result of CCS’s green deconstruction program at the former Hines Lumber Company site at 721 Pearl Ave. in Loves Park to make way for a park expansion.

Rather than outright demolition, which would send the materials to an area landfill, the City of Loves Park contracted CCS to dismantle the former lumberyard for salvage and reuse or recycling of the materials.

Nonprofit CCS, founded in 1992, would then sell the salvaged goods through its Green Development and Training Center.

“We’re not out to put the kibosh on deconstruction,” asserted Brad Long, president of Local 792. “We think it’s a viable thing. It’s a good thing to tear down something, and instead of throwing it in a landfill, to reuse the parts. I think that’s good, and we believe in YouthBuild as a program as well. We partnered with YouthBuild, CCS, in the past. Union carpenters instruct the class and stuff.

“It’s easy to say ‘green’ and ‘disadvantaged youths’…and ‘here’s the union trying to put the kibosh on them both.’ Well, that’s not true,” he argued. “We’re not against YouthBuild. We’re always part of that program. We embrace it.”

Rockford YouthBuild offers academic programs, vocational skills and job placement to low-income youth, ages 16-24, who have dropped out of high school. Participants in the program are best known for building or rehabilitating homes for low-income families. Thirty-five such homes have been completed since the program was implemented locally in 1995. The group touts more than 100,000 hours of community service to date.

CCS is utilizing a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor for the pilot program to train YouthBuild graduates for green jobs.

Kerry Knodle, CCS founder and executive director, explained, “Deconstruction, as a so-called green job, is one of the avenues that can help prepare not just young people, but disadvantaged jobseekers for eventual careers in the building trades.”

According to CCS: “The city will save money on demolition costs, and CCS is not only creating jobs for YouthBuild graduates, but also is instilling in them an entrepreneurial drive. The hope is that, in the future, the crew will sustain itself as a partnership of independent contractors.”

The five-person crew of trainees was contracted at a bargain rate, when compared to the prohibitive cost of demolition, to deconstruct seven buildings on the site, but the local carpenters union cried foul, arguing such a project is subject to the Prevailing Wage Act.

Union carpenters say a common prevailing wage rate applies to any demolition project that leads to new construction.

CCS representatives, however, argue that the job-training program’s deconstruction for reuse of the materials is not the same as demolition, and therefore not subject to the prevailing wage requirement.

“I guess it all depends on your perspective with this thing,” said Knodle. “The carpenters are hanging their hat on a couple of things. One is the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act, which got amended last year and now says that if public money is used for construction or demolition, prevailing wage applies, and there are certain exceptions to that in the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act.”

He noted, “I believe one of the exceptions is if there is to be no construction following the demolition, then that’s an exception to the Prevailing Wage Act.

“If you look at the Prevailing Wage Act, you’ll see that they define just about every term, except demolition,” Knodle pointed out. “Obviously, it’s our position that deconstruction is not the same as demolition, either in the manner in which it takes place or, ultimately, the purpose of it. The purpose of deconstruction is to recycle and reuse construction debris and material. The purpose of demolition is to get rid of it in the fastest manner possible, and to dump it in the landfill.”

Long disagrees, arguing deconstruction and demolition fall under the same classification. He acknowledged, however, that determination will need to be made by the Department of Labor.

Once the project is completed, the plan is for Loves Park to convey the property to the park district.

“I believe they’re [the park district] going to put in some parking lots and some other things, but—and here again it’s kind of a technicality—Loves Park will not be doing any construction on that property once they complete the deconstruction of the lumberyard.”

Knodle surmised Loves Park officials chose the deconstruction route over demolition in an effort to save money and to spare debris from going to the landfill unnecessarily.

“The EPA loves it, Loves Park loves it, the park district loves it,” Knodle asserted. “It has lots of win-win. We created five jobs as a result of it, at least for as long as it lasted, for now.”

Apparently, the only ones who don’t love the project are the union carpenters, for whom work has slowed during the economic downtown, who are taking issue with two aspects of the scenario.

“It’s got to do with the work over there, but there’s two separate issues,” Long said. “One is we believe as a union that that work should be covered under prevailing wage law. The separate issue is we’ve got this issue with CCS Construction, which is a union company.”

March 4, a Northern Illinois Building Contractors Association (NIBCA) grievance hearing determined, “We find that C.C.S. Construction, LLC is currently operating as Comprehensive Community Solutions, Inc., a/k/a CCS, Inc. and that Comprehensive Community Solutions, Inc. is bound to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters Local 792 and the Northern Illinois Building Contractors Association.”

The ruling further found that the work performed at the site is within Carpenters Local 792’s jurisdiction, alleging CCS is in violation of the collective bargaining agreement “by failing to pay the proper wages and premiums.”

“There’s three entities: CCS [Construction], LLC; CCS, Inc. and YouthBuild…and we think they’re all tied in as one,” Long asserted. “They say they’re two different companies, two different names, but there’s ways you can tie two different companies in together various ways. One of which was a check stub from a guy that, he got a check stub saying one company name, and a W-2 at the end of the year saying the other company name. They’ve obviously tied in the same company.”

The $48,785.76 grievance was sustained by NIBCA’s Joint Grievance Committee, and the complaint was swiftly filed in district court in the hope a judge would order payment by CCS.

According to Carpenters Local 792 attorney Raymond Sanguinetti, the collective bargaining agreement binds CCS to pay prevailing wages for the deconstruction project, and that CCS is subject to the grievance process.

Knodle disagrees.

“They filed a grievance against CCS Construction, LLC, a company which went out of business last July and is in bankruptcy,” he noted. “And they are somehow trying to say that Comprehensive Community Solutions, by fiat, or by something, has become CCS Construction and is therefore subject to a union contract, and therefore subject to this $48,000 judgment, which is absolutely ludicrous.”

Knodle said the grievance was addressed to CCS Construction and sent to the Hines Lumber site. A notice indicating a change of the hearing date was received the same day as the results of said hearing, Knodle reported.

“Nobody was ever present at the grievance hearing, except the carpenters and the NIBCA people,” he explained. “They made this incredible leap to say, ‘Well, this company that we had a union contract with is now doing business as another company,’ which isn’t true. In less than a week, before we even had a chance to respond to it, they filed a federal lawsuit.”

Knodle indicated that other areas, including the City of Chicago, have begun deconstruction programs for disadvantaged jobseekers, noting the city even has an ordinance requiring that 50 percent of the debris from demolitions must be salvaged for recycling or reuse.

Knodle said he’s unaware of union complaints in response to Chicago’s deconstruction program, but turned his attention even closer to home.

“Interestingly, the Pump Handle [Inn] [deconstruction] project is going on. I don’t see the carpenters raising any stink about that,” he asserted.

Knodle argued deconstruction projects simply become unfeasible financially when prevailing wage laws are applied.

“The prevailing wage for a carpenter in Winnebago County is something like $54-an-hour, and so it would make it virtually impossible to do deconstruction,” he said.

Long, however, thinks there’s room for compromise when it comes to the cost disparity. He said the union would be willing to create a new classification at a lower labor rate, while still ensuring proper training and supervision for the YouthBuild graduates.

“My door is open with the municipality, or CCS or YouthBuild, or anybody, to talk and try to come to some sort of resolution on this,” Long noted. “It’s not like they’re coming up against a stone wall that just won’t move or bend, or work with somebody, because that’s just not the case.”

Meantime, extension of the $19,000 20-day contract in Loves Park is on hold until a decision is rendered in federal court, or clarification from the Department of Labor is obtained, regarding the prevailing wage debate.

A resolution to the dispute could set an important precedent as deconstruction becomes more popular, and as CCS negotiates potential deconstruction of flooded homes along Keith Creek with the City of Rockford.

Bill Howard, project manager for the deconstruction program, met with union representatives March 19 in an effort to reach some sort of agreement.

“No dice,” Howard reported after the meeting, indicating the union plans to proceed with its federal lawsuit.

Knodle, meantime, said he’s disappointed the union doesn’t appear open to further discussion.

“Since this is new and it’s subject to a change in the law, it would have been my desire that some dialogue took place on it. Obviously, Loves Park chose the path they wanted to go on it, and it’s just unfortunate that this type of thing has to turn into some sort of an adversarial relationship,” Knodle concluded. “It’s just unfortunate that there couldn’t have been some productive dialogue before this thing turned into a big legal battle. Now, unless they choose to stop the presses on this thing long enough to figure it out, we’re going to be forced to go out and hire attorneys and go to battle in federal court.”

From the March 24-30, 2010 issue

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