An hour before City Council’s final session of 2018, Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 attempted to push through a contested bill requiring costly new inspections of the fire and smoke protection devices mandated for most high-rise buildings. The inspections would have to be done by members of the labor union.
The Sheet Metal Workers have fought for almost eight years to require these inspections of smoke and fire dampers, which prevent flames from spreading through a building’s HVAC system. It is their chief legislative priority this year, which explains their aggressive final push in the face of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration’s earlier statement that the bill would be held until 2019.
The union says that the bill is essential for protecting public safety while real estate industry representatives contend that it is unnecessary and that the fire-prevention systems can be tested remotely, without in-person inspections.
After a hearing two weeks ago, where the union clashed fiercely with industry representatives, Licenses and Inspections (L&I) spokesperson Karen Guss told PlanPhilly that city officials had brokered an agreement with the union, agreeing to unspecified amendments and that the bill would be taken up again in the new year after negotiations.
That agreement appeared moot on Thursday when union members and their leadership showed up at City Hall to press bill sponsor Jannie Blackwell to move forward with their unamended bill.
Outside Council chambers, several Sheet Metal Workers leaders, including assistant business manager Bryan Bush, were stopped by Rebecca Swanson, L&I’s director of planning. Swanson and the union leaders argued heatedly about the group’s surprise push for passage.
“What agreement,” Bush asked, when Swanson asked if they were going to stick with the deal made two weeks ago. “We never agreed to that.”
Swanson stated that the union should “keep their word,” to which Bush replied, “we never said that.” Both sides claimed the other was lying in an expletive-laced exchange.
“Our representatives reacted like anyone else would if called a liar to their faces,” said Todd Farally, the union’s political director, in an email message after the Council session. He said that the Local 19 representatives who attended the meeting with administration and industry officials made clear that the final decision rested with union president Gary Masino, who apparently decided to push forward for the unamended bill.
“There comes a point where others' concerns would completely gut the bill and make it completely ineffective,” Farally said.“At the end of the day this bill is about protecting all the people that live and work within our city and our first responders if, God forbid, there is a fire.”
Ed Grose, of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, one of the industry groups that opposes the union, said he was “shocked and disappointed” to see Sheet Metal Workers there.
“I was very, very surprised to walk in today and see that Local 19 was here pushing for the bill,” said Grose. “At our meeting, they agreed to wait until January and apparently they did not live up to their end of the agreement.”
Councilwoman Blackwell announced her intention to hold the bill at the caucus meeting before Council began, which caused union’s leadership to stalk out of the room.
Rich Lazer, deputy mayor for labor, described the meeting’s events as “just how the legislative process works.”
“Conversations with stakeholders are continuing,” Lazer said.
But Blackwell said on Thursday that her patience is wearing thin — she first introduced the bill over a year ago — and that the delays had to end.
“I understand there are supposed to be some amendments, but I don’t know the spirit of it or what it does,” said Blackwell. “I’m willing to hold it only one more time, then I’ll push it through no matter where we are our first week back [in 2019].”