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September 19, 2014

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CONSTRUCTION WORKER DEATHS ON THE STRIP:

Unions’ pressure on Ross spurred CityCenter walkout

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RYAN COLLERD / SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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On May 3, the family of Mark Wescoat, who became the fifth man to die on the CityCenter project when he fell to his death April 26, held his funeral in Vineland, N.J. His wife, Susan Wescoat, top, was comforted by Joseph Gatto, a man described by Wescoat's brothers as a longtime family friend. On Saturday in Boulder City, private services were held for Dustin Tarter of Henderson, who died at CityCenter on May 31.

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  • Steven Ross, secretary treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building Trades and Construction Council, discusses the intended message of the walkout at CityCenter.
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  • Ross describes the Construction Council's relationship with Perini before, during and after the strike.
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  • Ross talks about the Construction Council's intention of the strike.
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  • Ross discusses the role of Perini in job site safety.
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  • Ross on his role as secretary treasurer of the Construction Council.
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  • Ross discusses the effects of campaign contributions made to him.
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  • Ross talks about accepting contributions from contractors in both his campaign for City Council and secretary treasurer of the Construction Council.
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The show of force was impressive.

Nevada’s construction unions walked off job sites along the Strip on Monday, the first major project shutdown over safety in Las Vegas history. Union leaders said negotiations with the general contractor, Perini Building Co., had failed. They said the walkout at the mammoth CityCenter and neighboring Cosmopolitan projects would force Perini to make safety improvements.

What they didn’t reveal was the pressure they also applied to get one of their own to take that action.

Steve Ross, the head of a consortium of labor union locals known as the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council, had responded too slowly to safety problems the Las Vegas Sun first reported 10 weeks earlier, some union leaders and officials at the council’s Washington, D.C., headquarters said.

After the sixth death at CityCenter recently, the 11th death at Strip projects overall in the past 18 months, unhappiness with Ross from above and below came to a head, several union officials told the Sun after the walkout.

The message became: Do something.

Ross heard it.

What followed was a well-choreographed walkout intended primarily to blunt mounting criticism that Ross and the building trades were standing by while the death toll mounted, the labor officials said.

To be sure, the walkout also was intended to send a message to other contractors about safety. “This action is representative of all the construction sites throughout the valley and I wanted that message to be very clear,” Ross said in an interview Thursday.

But pressuring Perini on the specific demands was less important because, as Ross has said, the company was on the verge of agreeing to safety steps even before the latest death.

Ross said he believes strongly in working collaboratively with contractors to make job sites safer. That belief is consistent with the close relationships that labor experts say prevail nationwide between many construction unions and contractors.

But in Las Vegas, Ross’ relationship with contractors is muddled by another factor. Ross is also a member of the Las Vegas City Council. To win election to that post, he has taken significant campaign contributions from the building and gaming industries, and he said Thursday he will continue to do so.

Ross’ involvement in construction dates back to his college days. The Reno native said he started college at University of Nevada, Reno, and transferred to UNLV but never finished school. A summer job working for an electrical contractor turned into a full-time gig, Ross said.

He joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 357 in Las Vegas in 1989 and quickly moved into leadership roles. At various times, he oversaw construction work for the union and served as its political action chairman and assistant business manager. He also worked as the general manager of his wife’s electrical contracting company, Keleeco Electric.

With the backing of unions as well as contractors, casino companies and developers, Ross defeated 10 other candidates to win a city council seat in 2005. He had proved to be a prodigious fundraiser.

Since running for office, he has raised more than $600,000, including about $40,000 from construction companies, $66,000 from gaming and more than $180,000 from developers and others in the building industry.

Perini did not contribute to his campaign.

Two years after winning his city council seat, Ross asked the Nevada Ethics Commission for advice on whether seeking the building and trades council post he now holds would conflict with his role as a city councilman. The agency responded by warning that wearing both hats had great potential for conflict. It could mean that he would have to abstain so often at the City Council that his constituents would be deprived of their voice, the agency said.

Ross, however, entered the race for the building trades position and was elected last July.

Union officials say that no one asked whether Ross’ ability to represent the interests of workers would be hindered by his contributions from the building industry and by his political ambitions.

“It didn’t come up,” said a building trades insider who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “The issue of conflict got thrown towards, ‘There’s no conflict with me and the city.’ More questions should have been asked.”

Ross said in the interview that he has been careful to separate the two roles.

“I keep my city council office and this building trades office extremely far apart, and I do it on purpose,” Ross said. “I don’t want any thought of me mingling the two. I don’t want that to be clouded. I don’t want that to be gray. It’s very black and white.”

Ross said the member unions do not see the two roles as an issue­ and that they remain his biggest supporters.

Federal labor law prohibits contributions to union officials from employers in the same industry as employees the union represents, and labor law experts say Ross could be walking a fine line.

Ross is adamant that the practice is legal because contractors contributed to his race for city council, not to his effort to win the labor post.

“Several contractors donated to my last campaign, and hopefully they’ll contribute to this next campaign,” Ross said Thursday. “If you’re in political office and you can’t take their money and tell them no right afterward, you shouldn’t be in public office.”

Local union leaders say Ross is a marked improvement over his predecessor and his more progressive and proactive stance is the reason the Laborers union decided to rejoin the council after breaking away, said Laborers Local 872 business manager and secretary-treasurer Tommy White.

Still, others say he has been slow to act as the construction death toll mounted.

Mark Ayers, president of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, had been concerned for months that one of the highest profile construction projects in the country was becoming marred in tragedy, according to a representative. In January, Ayers called for the department’s research arm, the Center for Construction Research and Training, to conduct a safety review of the site.

The center needed Ross’ help in negotiating with Perini to grant access. Pete Stafford, executive director of the center, said he extended an invitation to Ross. He said the safety team could help with worker training and perhaps find the root cause of accidents at CityCenter, Stafford said he told Ross.

Stafford said Ross pledged to take up the matter with Perini at a regularly scheduled labor-management meeting the following day. But aside from trading a few e-mails, Stafford said he didn’t hear back from Ross until April, after the Sun’s stories ran detailing safety problems on construction sites.

Ross called to ask him to attend a meeting with Perini, Stafford said. But the meeting turned out to be limited in scope, Stafford said. The sole topic was providing more training to workers — not conducting a broad safety assessment to try to find underlying causes of accidents.

As the clamor for action grew locally and nationally, Ross joined Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani in calling for a meeting among developers, building contractors, workers and state and local officials to discuss safety and ways to strengthen Nevada’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Ross said in April that he would arrange the meeting, but it has not been scheduled.

At the time, Ross said he thought that unions should focus on worker training to improve safety. He insisted that ensuring all workers receive 10 hours of safety training was a much higher priority than conducting a safety assessment.

“Those business agents are out there every day, and all of the safety coordinators from Perini. The eye on the project especially with regard to safety is huge right now,” Ross said at the time. “There are so many people already looking at safety.”

Over the past three months, the Ironworkers Union also tried to involve Ross in discussions about safety. The union’s labor management trust asked Ross several times to participate in a meeting with contractors, subcontractors and state workplace safety officials, said Greg McClelland, an ironworkers official who was holding such meetings.

McClelland said he was perplexed that Ross never responded. (McClelland said Ross called him Thursday to say that he had had scheduling conflicts in the past but that the building trades would be represented at the next safety advisory meeting. Ross told the Sun the building trades council had been meeting with Perini about once a month to discuss safety concerns, in addition to labor-management issues.)

Back in Washington, Ayers grew more frustrated with inaction in Las Vegas. Ayers visited Ross in Las Vegas last month and reiterated his offer to provide help in addressing safety issues.

Ayers “let it be known to Steve that he needs to take it more seriously and be more proactive,” said Ayers’ spokesman Tom Owens.

On May 30, after a fatal crane collapse in New York City, Ayers issued a strongly worded statement mentioning the Las Vegas construction deaths and taking a position very different from Ross’.

“A big problem, however, rests with some contractors who put profits ahead of people’s lives,” the statement read in part. “Bottom line, while we care deeply about job site safety, the employer is legally and morally responsible for creating a safe work environment.”

The next day — May 31 — Dustin Tarter died at CityCenter, becoming the site’s sixth fatality. For some Nevada locals, that was the final straw.

At a building trades meeting Monday morning, union leaders shared their complaints and grew angry. Several union officials had been barred from areas of the site after Tarter’s death. Progress on safety was not moving forward.

The proposal for a walkout came from White, the business manager and secretary-treasurer of the Laborers Union, the largest in the council. “I look at things in a massive way,” White told the Sun afterward. “My response after the safety got thrown around, I said, ‘If you want to prove your point you should shut down every job site in this town.’”

Union leaders soon narrowed the proposal to shutting down CityCenter and neighboring Cosmopolitan sites to send a message up and down the Strip.

Delegates unanimously approved, and as head of the council, Ross suddenly was lead negotiator and spokesman.

Perini had agreed informally to the safety training and the safety assessment, but Ross made those issues a demand as he announced the walkout. The only added demand was for union officials to have unfettered access to the site.

“It was needed. It was overdue,” said David Jones, business manager and financial secretary of IBEW Local 357, who was involved in the discussions.

“This may not be the solution. This is just the beginning.”

At a news conference that afternoon, Ross made his way onto a platform at the council’s offices in Henderson, backed by a row of union officials.

“It is time to stop talking about worker safety, and time to start putting into place policies that are going to improve worker safety on this job site,” Ross said. “We will not send our workers to an unsafe job site.”

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