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Local workers to picket job site

Union reps say New Jersey-based company damaged area economy

Christina M. Currie

When his company was deceived out of a $28 million project, it was devastating, said Jerry Carlson, owner of Antelope Construction.

“We’re still floating, but we’re just hanging on. We lost some key personnel because of it,” he said about a project his company spent nearly $150,000 to get.

Antelope Construction, on a handshake and a promise, was guaranteed to be the sub-contractor for the construction portion of a $58 million contract to upgrade the Craig Station Power Plant.

New Jersey-based Hamon Research-Cotrell (HRC) is the general contractor for the multi-year project intended to upgrade the power plant’s pollution control systems.

More than $100 million in upgrades are required by a settlement agreement in a lawsuit between the Sierra Club and the owners of the power plant, which include Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

Members of the Western Colorado Trades and Labor Organizing Committee contend HRC reneged on an agreement to make locally owned Antelope Construction a sub-contractor on the project, which would have led to a bigger local workforce, higher wages and better benefits. Instead, 72 percent of HRC’s 54-person work force is from out of state, those workers have no benefits and Antelope Construction is straining to stay afloat.

“I would think it hurt the economy in Craig,” Carlson said. “It would have been $25 million to $28 million for us. We’re local guys. We have no offices other than Colorado and Utah. The money would have stayed in Colorado.”

Four business agents with the Western Colorado Trades and Labor Organizing Committee say that isn’t right, and they’re putting the strength of their membership behind them.

The Western Colorado Trades and Labor Organizing Committee represents unions for operating engineers, ironworkers, plumbers, pipe fitters and electrical workers.

The unions are holding an informational picket from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday outside the construction entrance of the power plant.

Up to 100 picketers are expected by the union representatives and Tri-State officials are warning their security staff to expect up to 200.

The contract

Jerry Roberts, former manager of Antelope Construction, negotiated the firm’s original contract with HRC. He said HRC approached Antelope Construction asking them to sub-contract for HRC exclusively, and not attach their name to any other proposals for this project.

“Basically, we shook hands and thought we had a deal and so did Tri-State,” Carlson said. “They backed out after they were awarded a contract. They used us to leverage themselves into the contract and then they dumped us. We feel like Tri-State selected Hamon partially because of our reputation. We think we played a major role in their selection. We don’t think they would have been chosen if it weren’t for us.”

Antelope has worked on power plant projects since 1974 and has a reputation for excellence in that field, said Matt Burtis, business agent for the plumbers and pipe fitters union.

“We signed a contract to exclusively bid with them, but we didn’t read it through. It didn’t say we’d do the construction,” Roberts said.

Four other general contractors asked Antelope to work with them as the sub-contractor for this job, but Antelope chose HRC.

“We decided to go with them because we thought they were the best and the most reliable,” Carlson said.

What HRC did, Roberts said, is prevent Antelope from bidding the project with any other general contractor.

Then HRC dropped them, he said.

“When they got the job, they said we couldn’t get bonded. We did,” Roberts said. “So, they asked to renegotiate our bid.”

Roberts said he understood that Antelope would do the actual construction and HRC would provide the engineering.

When asked to comment, George Morin, director of construction with HRC hung up. Jeanine Campbell, HRC’s field human resource manager, said she didn’t have any details on the contract negotiations.

Morin has not responded to phone calls or certified letters from the union representatives.

“We want to sit down and talk to him to set out something that would be amicable to both parties, but he won’t talk to us,” Burtis said.

According to Roberts, HRC has plans to put the construction work out to bid again. He has opened his own construction firm, Power Source Services, and said he would bid to be HRC’s subcontractor, but wouldn’t do it without a lawyer.

He said he doesn’t have much faith in HRC, though.

“It would be surprising if they made it all the way through this job,” he said. “Hamon looks like a fly-by-night company, you can tell by some of their equipment.”

Roberts estimates the construction company spent nearly $150,000 preparing to be the general contractor on the project. That included travel for negotiations, putting together a rigging plan and organizing and transporting cranes.

“So, they got all the ideas we had and just dropped us,” he said.

Antelope Construction is consulting with its corporate attorney, but Carlson did not comment on whether a lawsuit was in the works.

The workforce

The project, replacement of pollution control systems in Units 1 and 2 at the power plant, is expected to create nearly 300 jobs for two to three years.

“That would have been a three-year job for a lot of people,” Roberts said.

He believes HRC will bring in all out-of-state workers and said Antelope Construction would have provided up to 100 local workers for the job.

“It’s a shame because it really hurt, it cost the local economy,” Carlson said. “We had plans to use all local people for the most part.”

Campbell said HRC will always consider filling openings with area residents.

“We have some skilled positions that there may not be people locally who can fill them,” she said. “If we have qualified applicants out there, then yes, we’ll look at those people.”

HRC advertises its job openings at the Colorado Workforce Center, and in other places around the state and the nation.

“You’ve got to look in the places you can find qualified people,” Campbell said. “I think we’re doing a very good job (of hiring local workers).”

Of the first 36 employees hired by HRC, only two or three were from Craig, Burtis said.

A drive through the parking lot shows license plates from New York, New Jersey and New Mexico and Arizona. There are few Colorado plates.

Burtis estimates there are at least 100 local workers available who are trained in the areas needed, and even more on the Western Slope.

“We know of at least 20 people who have applied to work out there, and there are probably more, and they keep manning it from out of town,” he said. “They’re advertising through the job service here, but they’re not hiring from there.”

Burtis himself put in an application to test the waters.

He was not hired.

“These out-of-state people are taking the money and sending it home to momma,” Burtis said. “People are not leaving the money in Craig.

“The job was right once, that’s our problem.”

Everett Hess Jr., business agent for Operating Engineers, Local 9, said he’s talked to people who turned down jobs to wait for this project to start and now can’t get hired.

“We need to put people to work who live here,” said Del Higginson, business agent with Ironworkers, Local 24. “They live here, but they can’t work here. We’re going to do what we can for the working person. That’s what we’re about. That’s what we do.”

The wages

Burtis believes HRC will do as much of the construction as possible to save money in wages.

“Now HRC is doing the work itself,” Burtis said. “And, the workers from Hamon were promised a lot more money than they’re getting.”

He said HRC workers, on average, are getting $17 an hour and $40 a day subsistence when they were promised $22 an hour and $50 a day subsistence.

That’s the top end of the pay scale, Burtis said.

They have no benefits, but Campbell said that would change.

“We’re just getting ready to implement and offer (benefits) to all full-time Hamon employees,” she said.

She said all of the 54 workers on site are considered full-time HRC employees.

More than half of the current workforce have visited with union representatives about joining, Burtis said. Union members have been talking to employees and handing out flyers at the construction entrance of the power plant.

“We just want to employ local people and get fair and decent wages for all who work there,” Hess said.

Tri-State’s position

According to Jim VanSomeren, spokesman for Tri-State Generation and Transmission, HRC was one of six companies asked to bid on the contract. Three did one from Canonsburg, Pa., one from Overland Park, Kan., and Hamon Research-Cotrell from New Jersey.

HRC was the low bidder.

VanSomeren said the dispute between HRC and Antelope Construction “isn’t something we’re aware of, have comment on or would be involved in.

“Our only concern is that they (HRC) meet their obligation,” he said.

There’s nothing in the contract between Tri-State and HRC that requires HRC to hire locally, VanSomeren said.

“Tri-State had no control after they let the bid,” Higginson said.

But Burtis disagrees.

“How did Tri-State let this happen?” he asked.

VanSomeren said Tri-State continues to award smaller aspects of the job to local contractors.

“When we contract directly, we make an effort to do it locally and have done that successfully in the past,” VanSomeren said.

The original budget for the retrofit work was $105 million and Tri-State is running about $10 million over budget at this point, VanSomeren said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.


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