Thursday, June 5, 2008 | 2:07 a.m.
After union leaders showed some backbone Monday over the issue of worker safety at Strip construction sites, and after the builder quickly agreed to their demands, messages were sent that we hope were heard by all unions and by all builders.
The message for builders was that even the biggest projects, providing thousands of workers with needed jobs, are not immune from walkouts if safety issues arise and no one adequately deals with them.
The message for unions was that in matters of life and death, they must not hesitate to show their strength — all of it — if those matters are not getting resolved.
The backbone that was shown Monday by the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council came in the form of the union alliance’s ultimate weapon — a walkout.
It was called after the Las Vegas Sun’s ongoing series on worker safety by reporter Alexandra Berzon brought to light details of 10 deaths in Strip construction accidents over the past 18 months.
And it was called two days after yet another worker was killed, bringing to six the number of construction deaths on the largest Strip project, MGM Mirage’s $9.2 billion CityCenter being constructed by Perini Building Co.
Altogether, nine workers have been killed in recent months on projects overseen by Perini.
As Berzon reported Tuesday, union leaders had been reluctant — until Monday — to express concerns publicly about safety. Yet they had the power to take action much earlier. And they should have, even if it meant straining relations with a builder that has a long history of providing union jobs.
On Monday afternoon, union leaders affiliated with the Building and Construction Trades Council called a news conference to announce they were prepared to take action if Perini did not agree to their safety demands by midnight. When the time expired and they weren’t satisfied with Perini’s response, they called a walkout, shutting down work on CityCenter and Cosmopolitan, a casino and condo project.
Within a day, the union leaders’ demands had been met and workers were back on the job. The demands included that Perini ensure all workers receive 10 hours of safety training, that the company allow national experts to assess safety at the construction sites and that all union officials would be granted full access to the sites.
This is the second notable gain for construction workers since Berzon’s safety series began. She wrote at the outset, in March, that trade unions often acquiesced when the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration either forgave or watered down fines assessed contractors after fatal accidents.
Neither the unions nor the state OSHA are so forgiving anymore. Also, Berzon wrote about Nevada OSHA’s automatically aligning itself with a federal ruling stating that fail-safe netting or flooring was no longer needed several feet under high-rise construction workers if they wore safety harnesses. At least two of the workers who died recently might have been saved if such precautions had been taken.
On Friday, Nevada OSHA said it would once again, beginning Aug. 1, begin requiring that safety feature.
What has been demonstrated over the past few weeks is that contractors can elevate safety to its rightful top priority. To ensure the priority remains, however, workers, their unions and government regulators must remain diligent — and prepared to use their full powers at the first sign that safety standards have slipped.