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Alexandra Berzon

Las Vegas ironworkers want stronger union action

4 April 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The deaths of construction workers on the Strip are widening a rift in an ironworkers union local over workplace safety.

Members of Ironworkers Union Local 433 and friends and relatives of some accident victims say the union leadership isn't fighting hard enough to ensure safety at Strip building sites. Of the nine construction worker deaths on the Strip in the past 16 months, three were members of the union.

Workers and family members also say they are disturbed by remarks in Monday's Las Vegas Sun by Chuck Lenhart, business agent and leader of the local. Lenhart said he believed contractors were doing all they could to create safe workplaces and that the workers' own mistakes caused their deaths.

Union members and relatives of victims have told the Sun they have heard Lenhart make similar statements.

Greg McClelland, a representative of a safety committee working with the regional ironworkers unions, said Lenhart's comments were out of line with the union's beliefs. "To tell you the truth, I don't think everybody else shares that sentiment," McClelland said. If the contractors had abided by all safety laws, the three victims might have lived, he said.

Lenhart said Wednesday that his comments in the Sun had been taken out of context. "We've tried to fix the problems we've had as an industry," he said. "I've always looked out for the best interests of this membership." He said he has advocated for workers and for changes in laws, and noted that his stepson had been injured at CityCenter. Lenhart refused to comment further.

Nevada's Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited contractors for safety failures in all three ironworker deaths on the Strip: those of Harold Billingsley, David Rabun Jr. and Norvin Tsosie. The agency withdrew all citations in the Billingsley case after meeting with the contractor. The union could have attended that meeting to represent its workers but did not.

Billingsley died after falling through a hole in temporary decking at CityCenter that OSHA investigators said should not have existed. His safety harness was not working. Safety laws required a temporary floor two stories down to break any fall, but no such floor existed.

Thus far, OSHA citations remain in the Rabun and Tsosie cases.

McClelland said workers almost always side with a fallen co-worker in a serious accident, finding fault with the contractor or with safety inspectors. Now, after the Sun's examination of the three deaths, "the men are pretty upset," he said.

McClelland is leading a safety committee made up of representatives of contractors, unions and Nevada OSHA to examine conditions at Strip construction sites. He said the committee is making progress and safety measures are improving.

Lenhart's comments to the Sun and the union's diligence on safety issues are expected to come up at a meeting Friday at the Local 433 union hall. "There's going to be some fireworks," said David Rabun, a veteran ironworker whose son died Nov. 27 at the Cosmopolitan. Rabun plans to attend with his daughter-in-law Jessica Rabun, who will be in town from Texas.

Jessica Rabun said she was upset by remarks Lenhart made after her husband's death. As she stood in the hospital, she said, Lenhart came to her and said, "?'It's easy to become complacent'?" as an ironworker. "He wasn't meaning to be rude, but I would never say that to somebody who just lost someone. To me, it was blaming my husband."

Glenda Rose, whose boyfriend, Tsosie, died Aug. 2, said that when she stopped at the union hall afterward, Lenhart said something to the effect of: "This is the line of work they do. This kind of stuff happens. He was defending these companies to me. I remember walking away thinking: 'I thought you worked for Norvin,'?"

Fred Toomey, who held Lenhart's job for 15 years before retiring, said the union is not doing enough to encourage or defend union stewards on job sites who confront management about safety problems. When he was business agent, Toomey often shut down jobs over safety concerns, he said. He plans to attend the meeting Friday.

Other ironworkers, speaking only if not identified, said they believe they and their union are powerless against a safety system stacked in favor of construction companies. "It's like picking away at a mountain," one CityCenter ironworker said at Stage Door Casino after completing his shift. "You get what you can a little at a time."

Another worker, speaking outside the union hall, said he thought the union was doing all it could to ensure safety. "What should they have done? You make your own conditions."

Sun reporter Michael Mishak contributed to this story.