Building Bridges Together
The USW members at Veritas Steel in Eau Claire, Wis., are part of a small, close-knit work force who together help to build some of the biggest and most complex structures in the United States. About 125 members of Local 2138 at the Veritas fabrication plant create huge girders, trusses and other bridge components out of steel, piece them together to make sure they fit, then disassemble and prepare them for shipment to construction sites across the country. "Sometimes we don’t even realize how big things are until we see them out in the field," said Pete Tio, president of Local 2138, who spends his work days in the massive Veritas yard where the workers assemble their finished creations. The factory includes about 300,000 square feet of indoor space as well as about 60 acres outdoors, where USW members like Tio work in rain, snow and sometimes below-zero temperatures under fairly strict deadlines. "We make sure erything fits like a glove before it gets shipped out," said Dennis Wagner, Local 2138 vice president, who has worked at the plant for nearly 31 years.
New owners, fresh start
"The work these guys do is amazing," said manager Lance Shaver, who arrived at the plant almost three years ago after Atlas, an industrial holding company, formed Veritas Steel to take over the troubled Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Co. (PDM). In November 2013, USW members welcomed the arrival of Atlas, a company with a reputation for breathing new life into struggling businesses, with District 2 Director Michael Bolton calling the acquisition a "win-win." "If Atlas hadn't come along, we might not be here," Tio said. After the change in ownership, USW members, already skilled at building physical bridges, got to work bridging the long-standing gap between labor and management in Eau Claire. At a shop where negotiators had held past contract negotiations in separate rooms with almost no face-to-face contact, the USW and Veritas now operate as a team. "We have input on almost everything," Wagner said.
In the nearly three years with Veritas at the helm, the local has only had one contract-related complaint (Tio hesitates to even call it a grievance), which was resolved after a meeting of less than a half-hour. Another change Veritas made was to pay its hourly workers bonuses – outside of the USW collective bargaining agreement – each time the company reached quarterly production goals. The overall result has been a new workplace culture – one with better employee morale, increased efficiency, and a safer, more productive work environment for USW members. "We've been through a lot of battles here, times when we had our shields up," Wagner said. "Now, it is much better." Shaver stays in close contact with workers on the floor, making sure they have the time, equipment and proper staffing for the jobs they have to do. "They came in and said, 'the workers are our number-one asset,'" said Jeff Bauer, a 31-year veteran who was working alongside Cole Olson in the factory's assembly shop during a recent visit to the plant by USW@Work.
'A lot of changes'
Carlo Van Heertum has seen "a lot of changes" since he started working for PDM 41 years ago. In his early days, the company made bridge parts as well as structural steel for use in skyscrapers and other large-scale projects. PDM workers produced the stainless steel triangles that make up the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, as well as the forked columns at the bottom of the original World Trade Center in New York City. Today, the workers in Eau Claire are exclusively dedicated to bridge-building, a field that has seen a significant increase in competition over the years. "Everybody and their brother is making bridges now," Wagner said. Veritas produces all types of spans, from pedestrian and railroad bridges to arch and truss bridges that carry highway traffic. What sets the company apart from its competitors is its ability to customize each project and make it unique. "Every bridge we make is different," said USW member Bob Rybka. That's what makes it fun. Not every company does that. These aren't 'cookie cutters' like some companies make." As an example, in 2004, as Detroit was preparing to host Super Bowl XL, local officials also were making plans for construction of the Gateway Bridge and wanted parts of the structure to resemble footballs. Veritas was able to fulfill that unusual request. "That's one reason why we get so much business," Wagner said. "We can do the complex stuff."
Ivesting in equipment
Workers at Veritas do a variety of jobs – from smoothing and shaping large pieces of steel to make sure they fit together perfectly, to welding pieces together, painting them and preparing them for the often long journey to their destination. Some of the bridge components produced at Veritas weigh as much as 232,000 pounds, and some pieces require as many as three massive lifts, equipped with cranes, to position them into place. Dealing with such giant pieces of steel makes safety and health a top priority both for the company and for the union. "One slip up and it could kill you," Bauer said. Veritas has helped improve safety and health by investing millions of dollars in modern equipment and other updates at the plant, which had fallen into disrepair before the takeover. "It's hard to do the job right without the right tools and equipment," Wagner said. While safety at Veritas has made major strides over the years, there is always room for improvement, Wagner said. "Nobody comes to work to get hurt," he said. Despite the updated equipment and the ever-increasing size of the products they make, much of the work USW members perform at Veritas is still intricate enough that it must be done by hand. "This is skilled work. There's nothing automated about it," Shaver said. "We don't do the same thing twice." Even in the facility's paint shop, workers must be meticulous, making sure to brush each one of the hundreds of bolts on a girder with at least three coats of paint to make sure that the piece will pass inspection. State safety inspectors from around the country regularly visit the Veritas facility to review the company's finished products, sometimes spending as much as a week at a time to make sure the products meet their rigorous standards. Besides dealing with state-by-state inspection standards, Veritas grows its business by developing relationships with contractors throughout the United States who bid on public projects and then hire Veritas to complete the fabrication portion of the work. In addition to the Eau Claire facility, Veritas operates fabrication plants in
Wausau, Wis., and Palatka, Fla., where workers are not represented by the USW.
The workers in Eau Claire recently completed a bridge in Cleveland and are now working on spans that will be erected in Minnesota, Illinois and Kansas. The Veritas employees are planning a bus trip to a construction site in nearby Virginia, Minn., so they can get a first-hand look at one of their finished products. While it's not always possible for the workers to personally visit construction sites, Veritas provides a closed-circuit video feed on a television in the employee lunch room so the workers can monitor the progress of their various bridges as they are built. "These guys should be proud of what they do," Shaver said. One thing both labor and management in Eau Claire are equally proud of is the fact that no foreign steel is permitted on the company's property. Even the equipment, down to the chains workers use on their cranes and lifts (there are more than 1,000 chains on the property), is made in the United States.
"We don’t receive any foreign steel," Tio said. "If it does show up, we ship it right back." That dedication to American workers is a value Shaver shares with the USW membership. "We're here to do one main thing, and that is to create jobs and to create livelihoods for people," Shaver said. "Our number one goal is to create manufacturing jobs in this country."
Wally Kirkham, who has worked at the plant for 43 years, is the company's most senior employee. While he said he has lost track of the number of bridges he's been part of building over the years, one of Kirkham's most memorable projects
was the Blue Water Bridge, connecting Michigan with Ontario, Canada. Workers in Eau Claire produced one half of the bridge, while Canadian workers made the other half. The two sides met in the middle. That team effort is similar to the kind of partnership that has taken hold between labor and management at Veritas. That kind of teamwork is essential to get such large, intricate and important work done efficiently, Kirkham said. "You need everybody working together to get this done," Kirkham said.