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Alexandra Berzon

Strip carousers hear picketers' grievances

4 June 2008

As 2 a.m. neared on Tuesday, construction workers marched in circles outside the locked gates of CityCenter, their picket signs raised above their heads: "Unsafe Job Site."

Karaoke from the Hawaiian Marketplace across the Las Vegas Strip grew more and more discordant, as it does there every night. But normally workers hear the music from inside the construction site rather than while standing in front. Drunken revelers carrying giant Eiffel Tower mugs filled with a sugary alcoholic confection offered words of support and consolation as they strode by.

"You know, six people died here," one said. "That's too many."

"No more deaths!" the workers shouted as they marched.

Behind them, tourists peeked at the largest private construction projects in the country. MGM Mirage's $9.2 billion soon-to-be "city" promises high-profile art, fancy restaurants and luxury shopping when its six towers open in quick succession in a year and a half.

Normally buzzing with activity even at this time, even at 2 a.m., the vast web of concrete and steel and glass was shockingly empty (a few MGM Mirage guards seated near the gates were the only signs of life). The workers had walked off this and the adjacent Cosmopolitan hours earlier over concerns that the sites' general contractor, Perini Building Co., was not doing enough to create a safe workplace.

With thousands of workers off the job, it was the biggest construction shutdown over safety in Las Vegas history.

Leading it were union officials affiliated with the Building and Construction Trades Council who, just days earlier, had been reluctant to speak out publicly to pin safety problems on contractors rather than on sporadic mistakes by workers.

But suddenly over the weekend, construction safety concerns at CityCenter and in Las Vegas in general bubbled up and over.

In the faces and voices of picketers, they had become visible even to the laughing hordes walking down the Strip late at night.

"My wife won't let me work here anymore because she doesn't want me killed," said Patrick Walsh, a member of Ironworkers Local 416 who left CityCenter soon after operating engineer Harvey Englander on Aug. 9 became the third worker to die at CityCenter. Walsh came back early Tuesday to offer support to others.

Stationed outside gates around the 66-acre site, workers grouped together on the picket line unloaded stories throughout the night, and patterns of concern emerged:

• When they point out safety problems to supervisors, no action is taken. A crew digging trenches wasn't putting up the necessary barriers, for example, and complaints fell on deaf ears, several glaziers said.

• Personal protection gear isn't always provided, several said. One laborer apprentice said he never got the gloves he needed from Perini to do his job safely, so he had to buy them himself.

• The job site is too crowded, which leads to beams flying overhead and dangerous activities such as welding taking place directly above other workers.

• Contractors are not making sure that all workers are wearing their safety harnesses.

• Safety meetings that are supposed to be conducted weekly are sometimes sporadic.

• The site does not have enough safety officials and those who are present aren't always active enough in identifying and correcting hazards.

When people die on the job, Perini doesn't shut the job site down as other companies do, said Scott Wichael, a business agent for Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 797, while walking the line with his workers.

"This walkout wasn't really a surprise," Wichael said. "We could see it coming. I do believe that now we have their attention."

Mostly, workers said, they just wanted to respect the deaths of the eight men at CityCenter and Cosmopolitan, and to help send the message that they don't want another.

"We're trying to make a statement that life is important," said Fred Medina, a concrete superintendent and member of Local 797. "When you make a complaint about safety to the safety managers, they keep saying, "We'll fix it, we'll fix it.' But nothing ever happens. They're pushing to get stuff done. They're more interested in money than keeping the job site safe."

After the sun rose Tuesday, union leaders gathered more picketers in front of the scenic spot across from the Hawaiian Marketplace and the chants grew louder. "CityCenter is an unsafe work site."

Joining the line briefly were Democratic state Sen. Dina Titus of Las Vegas and Steven Horsford, a Las Vegas Democrat who replaced Titus as state Senate minority leader after she entered the race for Congress.

In a statement, MGM Mirage largely stood behind and supported Perini and did not wish to comment further. Perini was silent until it put out a statement after the deal was reached, and did not accept requests for an interview.

Steve Ross, a Las Vegas City Council member and the secretary-treasurer of the Building Trades Council, announced late in the morning that no deal had been reached. The holdup was unclear. Perini had already agreed informally to the union's requests, Ross said. He reiterated that he saw no obstacles to securing a deal.

Yet workers continued to march. By then, they had been told by union heads not to talk to the media. "We don't want to make this a spectacle in the press," Ross said at a news conference. "This is a private issue between the unions and the contractor."

By 3:30 p.m., as word spread that a deal had been reached, workers packed in their signs. They would be back at work that evening. Perini had agreed to all of the council's demands.

The company would pay an undecided amount to make sure that all workers receive 10 hours of safety training. Perini would allow researchers from the National Building and Construction Trades Department to conduct an assessment of the site. Perini would allow all union officials full access to the site.

More requests could come, Ross said, including several union officials' pleas that Perini provide more on-site safety officers.

Ross said the agreement should send a message to workers up and down the booming Strip. They should feel emboldened to point out unsafe working conditions and demand to have them fixed. "This is a victory for the workers on the project," Ross said. "This is for the workers. The winners are the workers."