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Home News Roofers Clash with Landscapers Over Chicago's Rooftop Gardens

Roofers Clash with Landscapers Over Chicago's Rooftop Gardens

Industry News

Roofers union feels pushed out of green roof pastures in the Windy City.

Chicago Tribune | October 23, 2009

Rooftop gardens, like the one atop Chicago's City Hall, have roofers green with envy.

They want more of the work that is being done by commercial landscapers in the booming market to install green roofs on public and commercial buildings in the Chicago area. But the landscapers are standing their ground.

The turf battle pits the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers, Local No. 11 against Teamsters, Local 703, and the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 150.

In a case involving a South Loop development, the unions took their dispute to the National Labor Relations Board. Last month, the board ruled in favor of Moore Landscapes Inc. of Northbrook and its employees who are represented by the Teamsters and Operating Engineers.

"We want to protect what we have historically done," said Thomas Stiede, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 703. "There is a science behind these roofs, and our people are better trained and have more experience in all those things."

Roofers say they have experience with all types of systems, including green roofs, whereas a landscaper is just taught how to maintain vegetation and plants.

"The NLRB will always award the work to whom the employer prefers," said Librado Arreola, a lawyer representing Roofers Local 11. "It doesn't matter which trade is more qualified or has more experience."

The labor conflict is a sign of how tough the recession has been on the building trades. Construction has nearly ground to a halt, putting pressure on unions to preserve jobs by finding new work for members.

Chicago is a leader in green roofs. The city installed more than 534,000 square feet of green roofs last year, according to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. Mayor Richard Daley instituted a grant program in 2006 to encourage owners of downtown structures to install green roofs.

In the simplest terms, green roofs are vegetation, often sedums and grasses, planted in soil or some other lightweight mixture. The greenery decreases the environmental footprint of a building by offsetting water runoff, lowering energy costs and improving air quality. The roofs can even serve as green space.

The union flap stems from work Moore Landscapes began in April at Roosevelt Collection, a loft and retail development that is one of the largest green-roof projects in the city, totaling more than 80,000 square feet. Two days after starting the job, the roofers union filed an objection with the Chicago & Cook County Building & Construction Trades Council.

The roofers disputed that landscapers are responsible for planting anything above the roofing membrane including building a multilayered garden. The roofers said there's no horticultural skill needed to lay preplanted trays of vegetation on top of a roof, a system distinct from a layered garden.

To avoid a confrontation with the roofers union and upsetting the general contractor, Moore Landscapes temporarily added two roofers. The company's unions then threatened to picket. The starting hourly wage for a landscape installer is about $16 an hour, compared with $30 an hour for a roofer, according to the unions.

Meanwhile, an arbitrator at the trades council awarded some of the installation work to the roofers union.

The company asked the NLRB on June 25 to intervene. Pedersen Co., a St. Charles landscaper, also is involved in a similar labor dispute over its roof work at two Chicago Public Schools. The NLRB has yet to rule in the Pedersen case.

At a two-day hearing in July, Moore Landscapes showed it is industry practice to hire landscapers to install green roofs. Since 2002, landscape contractors have completed more than 100 green roofs, including 20 by Moore Landscapes, according to the company.

Photo courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pnwra/ / CC BY 2.0

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