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The American Bottom Levee Project

Labor partners with Flood Council, contractors on levee restoration

By ALAN J. ORTBALS
    When FEMA lowered the boom on Southwestern Illinois with its announcement in 2007 that it was in the process of de-accrediting the American Bottom levees, organized labor sprang into action.
P15 stewartStewart    “If we didn’t get the levees taken care of, everything was just going to grind to a halt in the American Bottom,” said Dale Stewart, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council. “It was going to affect all of the companies of the American Bottom like U.S. Steel and Phillips 66, the power plants, etc. We generate a lot of man hours at the businesses of the American Bottom and we could see this area drying up completely.”
    Stewart got together with Sen. Bill Haine of Alton and Sen. Frank Watson of Greenville (now retired) as well as the county board chairmen to talk about what to do and how to do it. The idea to create an area-wide council to manage the project and fund it with a $0.0025 sales tax came from those meetings, Stewart said.
    Haine introduced the bill to form the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District and sponsored it in the Senate. Labor threw its support behind it in the legislature, said Stewart. Once it passed, they did the same on the county level to ensure that all three county boards (Madison, St. Clair and Monroe) would adopt the sales tax that was crucial to the project.
    But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, according to Stewart, as labor has repeatedly butted heads with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The point of conflict has been the Project Labor Agreement. The PLA is an agreement between the contractor and labor that is entered into up front and lays out things like wages, hours and working conditions. The Construction Trades Council has been using them effectively for years in Southwestern Illinois, Stewart said, entering into more than 400 of them.
    “We wanted to make sure that the money that was earned on this project was spent in this area,” Stewart said. “The Corps doesn’t operate that way. They bring in people from other states like Texas and Oklahoma. When we employ our own people, they pay taxes to the state of Illinois and local governments and they spend it with the businesses here in Southwestern Illinois. It benefits the area.”
    The Flood Prevention District Council adopted the PLA and made it part of their standard operating procedure on each of the bids that it has let. Bids have come well below budget and now the expectation is the total project will be about $110 million instead of the $160 million that was originally projected.
    “We want to get it done on time, on budget and with the best skilled people there are so the job is done right,” Stewart said.