Partnership Allies Train Laid-Off Workers for Green Jobs in Milwaukee

July 31, 2012 -- John Goldstein
photo of workers

Sean Maher, a navy veteran, began his career like generations of Milwaukee workers –in a metal fabrication factory. In 1998, the rapid collapse of manufacturing led him to the local Laborers Union. Large infrastructure projects, including Miller Park baseball stadium and the Oak Creek Power Plant, provided 10 years of steady employment and the opportunity to hone his skills. In 2009, as the national economy went into a deep recession, construction work in Milwaukee took a nosedive. For over a year, Sean was laid off. 

Around that time, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) wanted to address frequent severe flooding in the Kinnickinnic (KK) River watershed, most recently in 1986, 1997, 1998 and 2008. The ill conceived concrete lining of the riverbed prevented natural channeling and absorption of rainwater. This resulted in at least five drownings and millions of dollars of damage to local homes. In 2007, the KK River was identified as one of the 10 worst rivers in the United States. 

MMSD designed a green solution - demolishing the current concrete lining of the riverbed. In addition, the project required the removal of 87 homes to expand the riverbed and reduce the incidence of flooding. To increase the economic impact of the deconstruction project, MMSD employed its Fresh Coast Jobs Initiative to maximize job opportunities for unskilled community members and laid off union members. This is an innovative partnership between the sewage district and organizations that advocate for workforce development and job standards. In this case, Laborer’s Union Local 113 provided laid off members from the targeted hiring area. The Union also provided skills training for unskilled workers who were recruited from the impacted community. Big Step, a pre-apprenticeship recruitment and training program, recruited disadvantaged Milwaukee residents and prepared them for entry into the construction workforce.

During his layoff, Sean continued to monitor job opportunities through his Union. Hundreds of members were looking for work. While relatively small in scale, the KK project required some skilled Laborers. In 2011, Sean was hired when demolition commenced. 

Sean has worked for two different contractors on two different deconstruction projects bid out by MMSD. MMSD set a standard of diverting 85% of the material from these 20 homes from landfills. As a result, the project recycled as much as possible - wood floors, woodwork, countertops, sinks, toilets, bathtubs, cabinets, windows, doors, lighting fixtures and good quality lumber. Boards and studs that could not be salvaged were recycled by chipping or shredding them into mulch. 

Fifteen Fresh Coast participants including Sean worked on the first project. Eight participants were recruited through community-based workforce development programs associated with Big Step, seven participants were laid-off laborers from the area like Sean, and six workers became new members of Local 113, with training and dispatch benefits. The second project was smaller, and had a total 5 Fresh Coast workers. The work on both projects was performed under a project labor agreement with Laborers’ Union Local 113, providing union wages and full benefits. 

Currently, Sean is waiting for the final phase of the project to begin. He wants to continue deconstruction work and use his new skills. Sean has learned that it is possible to efficiently take a structure apart, salvaging valuable materials and greatly reducing what goes to the landfill. As the construction sector of the economy rebounds, he hopes the success of the KK River project encourages less traditional demolition and greater use of deconstruction techniques: “If things can be reused and we can keep things out of landfill, why not put the materials to use?”

Laborers’ Union Local 113 is an ally of Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund, a Partnership affiliate. The Partnership’s construction careers campaign is working in 15 cities to redesign job quality and job access in the construction industry. Through innovative policies we are developing new recruitment and training standards and channeling billions of public dollars into high-road employment, including in the green economy.