Trades unemployment surpasses 50 percent

by Tim Kenyon

CEDAR RAPIDS  – Unemployment ranging from 25 percent to more than 50 percent is an uncommon thing to hear about in the Corridor.

But that’s the estimate for out-of-work tradespeople in Cedar Rapids according to several Corridor labor leaders last week at a press conference last week at Plumbers & Steamfitters Training Center, 5101 J St. SW.

“We have an awful hard time to get jobs for local workers because of out-of-town competition. More than 50 percent of bricklayers are not working,” said Russ Gunderson, a Cedar Rapids area representative for Bricklayers & Allied Craft Workers Local 3 Iowa.

Ironworkers Local 89 representative Don Knepper noted about one-third of his group’s Cedar Rapids workers are unemployed.

“Unemployment right now is setting at 25 percent among Laborers Local 143 members,” representative Mike Brecht said.

Mayor Ron Corbett planned the gathering that attracted more than 100 people, mostly labor group members. Mr. Corbett announced measures to be implemented by the council to help local construction companies and workers.

This (meeting) is on the cusp of some major rebuilding in the city. Our intent is to use local construction companies and labor,” he said. “We’re going to buy local, build local and hire local.”

Scott Smith, president of the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Building Trades Council, said challenges and opportunities are felt by both workers and small businesses, urging increased teamwork.

City Councilor Justin Shields agreed.

“We need to change the misconception that it’s workers vs. management. This is a problem we face together,” said Mr. Shields, former president of the Hawkeye Labor Council.

An increased partnership between workers and management is needed to dent the negative results from out-of-town companies taking more of the projects, he said.

“If you look around town, it’s like Disneyland with all of the out-of-town license plates on construction vehicles,” Mr. Shields said. “They (out-of-town firms) will drive us down and this won’t be a fit community.”

An immediate boost will result from council approval of a $5.1 million deal hiring Ryan Companies to manage reconstruction of several city facilities and a separate $3.26 million transaction for Ryan to lead the Paramount Theatre renovation.

Marc Gullickson, president of Ryan Companies division in Iowa, said his firm is eager to take increased responsibility to rebuild the downtown area.

The company led restoration work recently finished on Theatre Cedar Rapids, Additionally, his company and Rinderknecht & Associates combined to restore Mercy Medical Center after the June 2008 flood.

The council also hired Neumann Brothers of Des Moines.

While the company is from out of town, Mr.?Corbett said, “Everyone has to realize we still follow the law of accepting the low bidder.”

Ryan and Neumann will be agents for the city on the respective projects and will negotiate contracts and work for architectural, mechanical, electrical and general parts.

An emphasis on hiring local companies at the prevailing wage will be strongly encouraged for those areas, Mr.?Corbett said.

Responsible bidder language also will be included in city project bid requests to weed out irresponsible contractors.

Training requirements, particularly for safety, will also be increasingly stressed to city-hired contractors.

Since recovery and rebuilding projects started after the June 2008 flood, several out-of-town contractors were found to be unregistered.

Dave Hogan, president of Carpenters Local 308, said state figures showed $12 million in unreported income and $750,000 in unpaid unemployment taxes from contractors working on disaster projects.

Mr. Hogan said contractors attending the meeting would be given questionnaires to submit their concerns and other ideas to the city for consideration in bid request language.

Councilor Chuck Swore said the council is in a better position now than when the flood hit to evaluate bid packages.

Mr. Corbett said two other major projects to be bid out soon will be a new fire station and library. The council recently approved a plan to buy the TrueNorth insurance and financial service firm’s building and lot directly south of Greene Square Park for the new library.