March 28, 2012

Agreement benefits local carpenters, University

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- An agreement between Southern Illinois University Carbondale and the Carpenters’ District Council of Greater St. Louis and Vicinity will benefit local carpenters and the Touch of Nature Environmental Center.

The agreement will provide volunteer labor by local carpenters for projects at Touch of Nature, and will help the under- or unemployed workers maintain their health insurance benefits. 

The first project begins Monday, April 2, and will involve putting a new roof on Little Grassy Lodge, the hotel/conference facility.  The University will provide materials, tools and equipment.  The project should be complete April 6.

“This agreement reflects the strong relationship we have enjoyed with the Carpenters District Council for many years,” Chancellor Rita Cheng said.  “This is a great public-private partnership that benefits local workers and their families and the University.”           

Phil Gatton, director of Plant and Service Operations at SIU Carbondale, said the agreement means that some deferred maintenance projects will be completed.  The carpenters will do the work as part of their member retention strategy “and it’s work we are not able to get done otherwise” due to budgetary constraints, Gatton said.

The work could extend to replacing doors, windows and siding on the buildings, some of which date to World War II, Gatton said.

The agreement “strengthens the bond between our two organizations,” said John Gaal, director of training and workforce development for the Carpenters’ District Council of Greater St. Louis and Vicinity.  There are members of the union who work for the University’s maintenance staff, he said.

“We have members who have been under- or unemployed who have the skill sets and who are willing to volunteer and assist in the project,” he said.

The roof project at Little Grassy Lodge will use four journey-level workers and two apprentices, each of whom are within 50 miles of the University, Gaal said.

“I’m hoping this allows both organizations to strengthen their relationship,” Gaal said. 

There are a number of union members who have taken off-campus classes in workforce education and development and industrial technology through the University’s program at Scott Air Force Base.

The union is involved with a pilot program where members volunteer their service and utilize their skills on qualified community service projects.  This is the third project of its type, Gaal said.  The other two involved rebuilding props for the St. Louis Police Department’s canine training center, and building new benches and bleachers for baseball and softballs fields in the city park in Freeburg.

One of the requirements for carpenters to maintain their health insurance benefits is that they must work a specified number of hours each year.  With the economic downturn, this is a way for carpenters who have been out of work to help satisfy those requirements.

“If our members are nearing the end of a quarter and they don’t have enough hours of work they may lose out on their benefits,” Gaal said.  “If we can get them on this project it might assist them in keeping their benefits intact for another quarter.”

Gaal points to the economic downturn that has hit the region hard.  He noted that in April 2001, prior to the 9/11 terrorist attack, there were 2,100 active apprentices in the St. Louis apprenticeship program.  By April 2011, that number dropped to 664.