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May 25, 2007

Booming out to Baghdad…Michigan tradesmen play key role in building U.S. embassy in Iraq

'Absurd' ruling transforms nurses into supervisors; what group is next?

Unionized Homeland workers would 'negatively impact' U.S. security, Bush Administration says

Trades work to reopen gate to the past

Pipe trades apprentice contest is taking root

News Briefs

 

Booming out to Baghdad…Michigan tradesmen play key role in building U.S. embassy in Iraq

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

A contingent of building tradesmen from Michigan are truly putting the "journey" in journeyman, working 7,000 miles from home constructing a $592 million embassy complex on 104 acres.

And it's not just any embassy: it's located in Baghdad, Iraq, in the midst of the longest and largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War.

Many of the Michigan Hardhats arrived in Baghdad last Thanksgiving weekend as part of a contingent that's constructing the secrecy-shrouded U.S. embassy in the "Green Zone," a three-mile-long, half-mile-wide cordoned-off area that houses the major base of coalition military operations in Iraq.

The U.S. embassy is moving toward completion, and Michigan tradespeople had a lot to do with its construction. According to union construction workers we talked to, about half of the 70 tradespeople remaining on the job as of mid-May were union Hardhats from Michigan - and the percentage was even higher several months ago.

How did that happen?

If you guess that limited opportunities for work in our state has been a factor, you would be correct, although there were other reasons. The pay varies by craft, with 70 hours per week virtually guaranteed.

More than a year ago, one of the higher-ups in the U.S. State Department learned that Michigan might be fertile ground for recruiting workers to build the embassy, and approached several union locals about seeing if workers would be willing to go to Baghdad. A number of tradesmen accepted the offer, and have spent the last six months of their lives in the capitol of the most dangerous country on Earth, for Americans.

We obtained phone numbers for three of those workers, and each were surprisingly easy to get ahold of, all things considered. We talked to three foremen, Tom Donahue, 60, of Milford, a 42-year member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 80; Mike Woodley, 62, of Port Huron, an un-retired 40-year member of IBEW Local 58, and Bill Packer, 35, of Grosse Ile, a seven-year member of Pipe Fitters Local 636.

Following is their take on working, eating, sleeping and "recreation" in Baghdad First we asked them the question they say everyone asks:

Why would you go to Baghdad?

Donahue said he was laid off and looking for work when the opportunity arose to work on the embassy. "It was what you might call a challenge," Donahue said, "to see whether you could do it. Everybody says 'you've got to be crazy to go over there.' My oldest son calls and sometimes asks if I'm alright. I say, 'alright from what?' "

Woodley said a Local 80 business agent asked if I'd be interested, and I was," Woodley said. "I was interested in the challenge. For myself, the money wasn't a factor. For others, it was."

Packer said he's with a group that he's worked with for a few years. "The money played a part but it wasn't a motivating factor," the former Marine said. "I was excited to have the opportunity to work with people I know in building a U.S. embassy." He said working in Baghdad may open the door to other opportunities to build future U.S. installations overseas. Once workers pass the extensive background checks, that valuable clearance stays with them anywhere in the world, Packer said.

Getting there: The first leg is a commercial flight from Detroit to Kuwait. Then a military flight to the Baghdad airport. Then came a 3 a.m. ground ride to the Green Zone in a convoy via an armored "Rhino" personnel carrier. Helicopter air support was provided. No one reported any incidents. "When we were riding to the Green Zone I kind of wondered what I had gotten myself into," Donahue said. "When I look back on it, it wasn't bad."

Going to work: They technically work for the Kasemen Co. Packer said. He said a division of the U.S. State Department, Overseas Building Operations, supervises construction. "The job is generally run the same way as in the U.S." Donahue said, "except we are actually individual subcontractors ourselves." He said each worker reports to the foreman of his craft.

Most journeymen bring their tools on the trip. Larger items like pipe threaders are provided. Woodley, the electrician foreman, said materials were readily available, but shipped to the job site in secure, diplomatic containers. He said on-the-job practices were similar to those in Michigan - while some "requirements" that he would not specify "were outside the industry norm." Security was tight, with materials kept under lock and key. The embassy is a multiple-story, highly secure building.

Overall, each tradesman praised the construction process, their supervisors, and their co-workers. Donahue said as far as he could tell their portion of the embassy job was done 90-95 percent union, and there have been only very minor injuries on the job. A Kuwaiti firm managed a larger portion of the embassy work.

"I have no complaints at all," Woodley said. Added Donahue: "Everything has been taken care of. It's been a very well-organized job." Said Packer: "It's been positive for me."

Steve Sutton, the Local 80 BA who helped arrange the trip for the sheet metal workers, said the trades are earning a "significant" wage over the scale in Michigan, plus fringes. "I'm really proud that the government came to the unions for workers, because they came to us specifically because of our productivity," he said.

Sleeping, eating and entertainment: Foremen get their own trailer; two journeymen share a single trailer. They were reported as being comfortable.

What limited recreation they have includes pool and ping-pong in the villa. "We hang out on Saturday nights and have a barbeque on Sunday," Packer said. Sunday is their only day off. "There's not much to do when we're not working, we usually just pull up benches and shoot the bull."

The food is good (and free), but the eating schedules are regimented. Bus transportation takes workers to mess halls in the Green Zone. Workers rub elbows at the tables with U.S. soldiers and support personnel as well as those from various other nations. A Subway and Burger King are also available. A PX (which is like a grocery store) is available to buy sundry items, and there are shops to buy clothes.

"Most of the soldiers are just kids, and they're great," Donahue said. "We talk to them all the time and get along very well."

A small watering hole was recently closed down in the Green Zone after it was mentioned in a Time Magazine article. Alcohol is available for purchase, but in limited quantities.

As the world turns: The good news is that tradesmen have access to cable television and the Internet. The bad news: There are more than 100 cable channels available, "but only three of them are English language," Woodley said. "None of them is from the U.S. The news we get from the U.S. is mostly from the headlines on the Internet." Tradesmen have their own phone numbers, but they can only receive calls. The mail system works well.

The ties that bind: Working in a war zone 7,000 miles from home seems to bring the workers together.

"Originally a large percentage of workers our here was from Michigan, but it's about half right now, and we're getting people from all over the U.S." said Woodley. "We're a pretty tight crew - way more than you'd see on a normal job. We're together all the time, we work together, we ride the bus together, we eat together. We look out for one another."

Donahue added: "A few spark plugs in the bunch keep everybody together. People are away from their families, but everybody is really nice to each other, and it's amazing how we've meshed together."

Donahue and Woodley are divorced, with older children. Packer is unmarried but has a girlfriend back home. Packer said tradesman are mostly older with grown kids or younger with no kids - but there are a number of workers who have younger children, who are working in Iraq because they need the money.

Missing family members was mentioned as the number one difficulty. "I miss my kids, my family, seeing them and talking to them in person," Donahue said.

The Green Zone: Construction workers building the embassy might be described as living in a bubble. "I've been in Baghdad six months and have never left the Green Zone," Donahue said, which was the case for all three workers we talked to.

Security in the zone is in the eye of the beholder. Sirens are turned on sometimes to "warn you there may be a problem in your area," Donahue said. Still, "I don't think workers here have felt threatened. Security is very well thought-out. It's possible something may happen, but so far, so good."

The nearly completed embassy, he said "is one of the safest places you can be."

There are concrete shelters scattered in the zone, which are used with some regularity. Woodley and Packer said explosions are heard outside the Green Zone walls on a daily basis. Donahue reported a "number of duck-and-cover incidents" when explosions have hit inside the Green Zone.

"Things are heating up a bit, but we're still safe," Packer said. "You can see that everybody has a different comfort level. The thing about our situation, we have no contract, so you can leave today. You can be home in three days. A lot of guys just say they've had enough and they're out of here by 6 p.m. the same day."

Packer added: "People at home will tell us they watch the news and they see the violence going on in Iraq, but they don't distinguish what's going on out there with what's going on here in the Green Zone. For the most part, that stuff doesn't happen inside here."

Donahue commented on the city inside the Green Zone. "The buildings, the architecture, the date palms… it's an awesome city, from what I can see. You see all this and wonder why these people want to kill each other."

Weather-wise, the Michiganians arrived at the best time possible in Iraq. Wintertime temperatures were said to be like springtime temperatures here. But rains turn the soil "into some of the worst mud you've ever seen," Woodley said. And now comes the summer: last week, the 100-degree temperatures had already kicked in, and a fine-powdered dust was in the air. They have been told Iraq experiences 130-degree temperatures in the summer.

The embassy: Construction of the complex is said to be the only on-time project going on in Iraq. News reports (there is very little official U.S. government information about the embassy) say the complex will be a self-sustaining cluster of 21 buildings reinforced to 2.5 times usual standards. It is said to be the most secure diplomatic embassy in the world, anticipating a day when the Green Zone walls no longer exist.

More than 1,000 U.S. government officials who will work there will have access to a gym, swimming pool, barber and beauty shops, a food court and a commissary. There will also be a Marine barracks, a school, locker rooms, a warehouse, a vehicle maintenance garage, and six apartment buildings with a total of 619 one-bedroom units.

Water, electricity and sewage treatment plants will all be independent from Baghdad's city utilities.

After six months in Iraq: "I've been impressed with what I've seen," Donahue said "I didn't have high expectations going in, and I certainly didn't think things would be as good as they've been. But six months is long enough for me, I'm ready to go home for some R and R."

Woodley said he's coming home for two weeks at the end of May, and will then return to the embassy to see it through to completion for another three months or so. "I do miss my kids, and the green grass, and flying," said Woodley, a pilot. "Phone calls and e-mails aren't the same as being there." Still he said, "I have no regrets. I'd do it again."

Packer isn't going anywhere, for now. He and six others in his group that went to Iraq plan on working at the embassy until July or August, and may return if more work becomes available.

"We have a great group of guys here," Packer said. "There's a lot of camaraderie. We get at each other's throats sometimes, but we stick together, and we're always looking out for each other."

SHEET METAL WORKERS from Local 80, as well as other tradesman from Michigan, have been in Iraq for six months building the new U.S. embassy. Pictured are (l-r) Brian Wilson, Al Manikas, Dave Angelo, Tom Donahue, Joe Czarnecki, Jerry Costello, Hector Torres and Dean Smith. Behind them is a bronze set of crossed swords ordered up by Saddam Hussein, the "Hands of Victory," which was constructed in1989 as a monument to what he said was victory in their war with Iran. The monument is in the Green Zone.

HERE IS PART of the Michigan pipe trades contingent working in Iraq. Back (l-r) are Nick Tacolla, Pipe Fitters 636, Piping Foreman Bill Packer (636); Vince Brinker (636); middle row (l-r) Stephan Goudy (636), Ira Miller (Plumbers 98), Ron Babish (98), and Eric Bondy, 636. Kneeling is Bruce Kremhelmer (98). Not pictured: Joe Sloop, (190).

HERE'S THE CONTINGENT OF IBEW electricians working on the American embassy in Iraq. Most are from Local 58. (L-R) Greg Wells, Dan McGlynn, Rusty Bennett, Paul Militello, Pete Trajcevski, Chuck Hill, Lamarr Jones, Chris Williams, Keith Kennedy, Larry Buice, Mike Minenga, Brian Johnson, Mike Woodley, Brian Burtch, Ron Theilman, Dennis Addington and Kevin Weddington.



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'Absurd' ruling transforms nurses into supervisors; what group is next?

WASHINGTON (PAI) - Some nurses who make out schedules for co-workers, and construction journeymen who direct apprentices, are at the top of the list of U.S. employees who may be declared "supervisors" under a new National Labor Relations Board ruling.

Reclassifying such workers as "supervisors," which the NLRB did last year, would allow employers to deny them union rights. The ruling is still being assessed and could affect anywhere from 8 million to 34 million U.S. workers. It is widely understood in the labor community that the majority of five-member NLRB, picked by President Bush, is anti-union and made the ruling to benefit business interests.

In March, three lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Congress introduced a bill to overturn the "workers are supervisors" ruling. The bill states that a worker cannot be a supervisor unless "for a majority of the working time" he or she is "acting in the interest of the employer" in hiring, firing, disciplining or otherwise managing workers.

It also says a worker cannot be named a supervisor just for "assigning" other people to tasks or just for being responsible for directing them on occasion.

One of those arbitrarily reassigned-to-supervisor nurses is RN Lori Gay of the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, who testified before a May 8 hearing in front of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee.

"As a charge nurse, I'm in charge of the pencil," Gay testified. ""Typically, I spend 10 minutes at the end of my shift filling out an assignment sheet for the oncoming shift, making sure every patient has a bed and a nurse. I record the traffic in and out. It's as simple as that. I don't have the authority to hire, fire, evaluate or promote other nurses" or discipline them.

All those factors, and more, are responsibilities of supervisors, but the Bush NLRB majority said that if a worker engages in any one of them for as little as 10 percent to 15 percent or his or her working time, that worker is a supervisor and can be denied union representation.

Gay called the situation "absurd." Her union, the United American Nurses, won a recognition election at Salt Lake in 2002, but the ballots - including hers - were impounded for five years until after the board's workers-as-supervisors ruling came down last fall. The ballots then went back to Salt Lake City for a recount under the new definition of supervisors.

"Sixty-four out of 153 nurses…were supervisors, including myself. All the RNs in the neonatal intensive care unit were essentially 'supervising' each other on a rotating basis. In inpatient rehabilitation, 10 out of 12…In the newborn nursery 10 out of 12…In the surgical unit, the ratio was 10 (supervisors) to seven" non-supervisors, Gay said.

In addition to construction, other professions that could be subject to the new supervisor rules include newspaper reporters (who work with editorial assistants), teachers (who have teachers' aides) and physicians' assistants.

Democrat-appointed members of the NLRB, Wilma Liebman and Dennis Walsh said the NLRB majority decision regarding supervisors "threatens to create a new class of workers under federal labor law - workers who have neither the genuine prerogatives of management, nor the statutory rights of ordinary employees."

Liebman and Walsh wrote that most professionals and other workers could fall under the new definition of supervisor, "who by 2012 could number almost 34 million, accounting for 23.3 percent of the workforce." They went on to say the Republican majority did not follow what Congress intended in applying the National Labor Relations Act.

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Unionized Homeland workers would 'negatively impact' U.S. security, Bush Administration says

WASHINGTON - President Bush has promised a veto of a Democrat-backed bill that would allow 125,000 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) workers to operate under a collective bargaining agreement.

Bush's stance is that allowing those workers to unionize would be a threat to national security.

The new Democratic-run 110th Congress repealed the personnel system Bush tried to impose at DHS, but which two federal courts in D.C. have overturned. The personnel system gives DHS officials virtually unlimited power over workers. It yanks whistle-blower protections and the workers' right to bargain over just about everything.

"Management must strike a careful balance between the flexibility needed to defend against a ruthless enemy and the fairness needed to ensure employee rights. This legislation threatens that balance," Bush's Office of Management and Budget said in a statement. Eliminating that flexibility would "negatively impact the security of the nation."

American Federation of Government Employees official Beth Moten was not surprised by Bush's veto. She noted that as a result of his system, morale at DHS is among the worst in the federal government. "DHS has had 4-1/2 years to take this extraordinary and unprecedented authority it got" over personnel "and come up with something that could meet the needs of both the employees and the American public. They blew it," she said.


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Trades work to reopen gate to the past

By Marty Mulcahy
Managing Editor

DETROIT - The Hurlbut Memorial Gate at the city's Waterworks Park was completed in 1894 - in an era when communities were willing to devote the resources to build public art on a grand scale.

Unfortunately, over the last few decades it's been difficult to find the resources for even basic maintenance for such structures. But this year, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department loosened the purse strings for the renovation of the Hurlbut Gate - and now masonry contractor Chezcore and a crew of tradesmen are rebuilding the structure and taking it back to how it looked in its glory days.

"When we're finished in July or August, we will have disassembled half the monument, completely rehabilitated everything, and then put it all back together," said Chezcore Executive Vice President Pete Hanewich. "The intent is not to do a quick hit. We're restoring it to its original luster, making it safe and sound and watertight."

The monument is named for Chauncey Hurlbut, a Detroit Water Board commissioner who died in 1885. He left nearly his entire estate, about $250,000, for maintaining a library and improving the grounds belonging to the commission.

The Water Board opted to use $27,266 to build the memorial - which acted as a gate to Water Works Park. According to the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, the 110-acre park along West Jefferson on the east side of Detroit park was a popular attraction open to the public. It contained a pumping station for the city - and much more.

In 1894 it contained a man-made waterway encompassing two islands, three bridges, a small wading lagoon and a winding canal where rowboats could enter the park. Visitors strolled along pathways lined with chestnut trees, intricately-landscaped shrubbery and floral displays.

Water in the channel attracted schools of fish so numerous that anglers could catch all they could carry without baited hooks. There were tennis courts, a baseball diamond, a picnic area, teeter-totters and swings.

A 185-foot brick tower, dismantled in 1962 after it became a hazard from falling bricks - acted as a standpipe and a famous landmark for the water works. A floral clock was another attraction to the park that is now put away in storage. The gates were kept locked for security reasons during World War II and then the Korean War - and the park has remained closed since. The lagoon has been filled in and except for water distribution buildings that have been modernized in recent years. Today the Hurlbut Gate is the entrance to an empty field.

The gateway is 132 feet wide by 50 feet high and is adorned with scrolls and figures. Dual stairways lead to a terrace 12 feet above ground. A stone eagle, with wings outspread, occupies the crest at its dome. A granite bust of Chauncy Hurlbut, the monument's namesake, was located in the center of the monument but was stolen in 1974.

The years have not been kind to the nearly all-limestone structure, which is listed on state and national historic registers. Copper lining the dome has long been scavenged, and water incursion into the structure, plus the freeze and thaw cycle, caused the east and west walls to heave outward. Rusted anchors loosened numerous stones, and new tuckpointing and flashing is necessary throughout.

Mike Kroll, the foreman on the site from Chezcore and Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, said 123 limestone pieces of various sizes will be removed, replaced and secured with epoxy and new stainless steel anchors.

"It's really an ornate piece of work," Kroll said, running his hand along across some fancy stone edge work. "They did this in 1893, and this wasn't machined, a lot of it had to be hand-chiseled. It's really nice work. Can you imagine the hours they spent doing this? We just never see the detail that you see here any more."

Plumbing and electrical within the structure will also be restored. There are two public restrooms in the memorial, and a pair of lion's heads guarding the entrance will once again spout water when the project is complete. And, wrought-iron gates at the monument that lead to the park are being re-fabricated.

The monument was listed last year as one of the 50 greatest architectural structures in the book "American City: Detroit Architecture 1845-2005."

"It is one of the most important structures from that period currently standing in the city," said author Robert Sharoff said in an interview, as quoted in the Detroit News. "It is a beautiful Beaux Arts monument. There's not a lot of that left in Detroit, and that's one of the really coolest examples of the whole era."

CHEZCORE workers (l-r) Rudy Leon of Laborers Local 334 and Ed Raymond of BAC Local 1 place a refurbished limestone section on the upper level of the Hurlbut Gate.

THE GROUP OF WORKERS restoring the Hurlbut Gate include (l-r) foreman Mike Kroll of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, Ed Raymond of Local 1, Rudy Leon, Jeff Gray and James Mahone of Laborers Local 334, and Jim Strong of Operating Engineers Local 324.

The Hurlbut Gate, in a photo taken a few years ago without all the scaffolding that currently adorns the structure.


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Pipe trades apprentice contest is taking root

ANN ARBOR - The long-dormant United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Michigan State Apprentice Contest is starting to become routine, again.

For the second straight year since the contest was abandoned 33 years ago, contestant-apprentices from around Michigan competed in events that tested skills in HVACR service, pipefitting, plumbing and welding. In 2007 - also for the first time in years - winners of the state contests like this one will compete in a UA-sponsored regional contest (held this year in Pittsburgh).

The locale for both this contest on May 3-4, as well as the national competition in August, is the UA Great Lakes Training Center on the campus of Washtenaw Community College.

The participating local unions were 85, 174, 190, 333, 357, 370 and 636. Two days of competition in topics and tasks related to the various trades were judged by industry and training representatives.

"The contest allows all participants, contestants, coordinators and observers to view the knowledge and skill level our future workforce has to offer," said Rod Jara, director of the UA Regional Training Center at WCC. "And I can add that it's refreshing to know that these young members will carry our organization and trades well represented into the future."

In addition to a written exam, apprentices had to demonstrate competency in various tasks such as: copper tube bending and brazing, underground layout of pipe, knot tying and rigging, blueprint reading and material identification, various welding methods of pipe and plate, electrical and mechanical problem solving, threaded pipe fabrication and assembly plus other specific trade tasks.

UA to Iron Workers: thanks for the lift

Apprentices from Iron Workers Local 25 and Cadillac Iron provided a big assist to the United Association's Michigan State Apprentice contest.

The apprentices, with a boost from Cadillac Iron's boom truck, erected an iron rigging structure that allowed the pipe trades to test their apprentices' skills in rigging.

The structure, which can be disassembled and moved, "simulates the red iron of a building and allows us to teach and test apprentices on the proper techniques for different rigging applications," said Scott Klapper, apprenticeship coordinator for host Local 190 who helped coordinate the contest.

The 10x10x20-foot-long frame was erected on the Washtenaw Community College campus, but it's designed to be portable and shipped to different UA training centers.

"I really wanted to let the Iron Workers know that we appreciate their gesture of cooperation and support in setting up the frame," said Rod Jara, director of the UA Regional Training Center at WCC. "It really helped us and we will be able to use it for years to come."

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News Briefs

Cerebral palsy bike run is July 28
The second annual Benjamin Franklin Memorial Poker Run will be held starting with registration at 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 28 at the Lansing at the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 333 union hall.

Last year's poker run, sponsored by Local 333, raised $5,200 for the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Michigan.

The motorcycle ride is held in memory of Benjamin Tyler Franklin, who died at age three of cerebral palsy. He's the son of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 333 secretary April Franklin and Iron Workers Local 25 member Benjamin Franklin.

In a poker run, drivers of cars and motorcycles make five stops on a pre-planned route and draw a card at each stop. At the final stop, prizes are given out for those who have the best poker hand.

The ride will start at the Local 333 union hall, at 5405 S. Martin Luther King Drive in Lansing. Bikers will head south before ending at the Wooden Nickel Saloon in Dansville, where there will be food, music and prizes. There will be first and second place prizes, as well as door prizes for longest distance and youngest and oldest riders.

The registration cost is $20 per bike/$5 per passenger. Call April at (517) 749-9583 or e-mail afranklin@local333.com for more information.


'Big Mac' work is a Dirty Job
Is working on the Mackinac Bridge considered a dirty job?

Apparently, the people at Discovery's Channel's "Dirty Jobs" show think so. Mike Rowe, the show's host, will come to Northern Michigan on May 25 to tour the Mighty Mac and highlight the daunting work bridge maintenance crews perform each year on the structure.

Mackinac Bridge Authority (MBA) officials said the project is a unique opportunity to showcase the significant work done in Michigan on the landmark structure, which turns 50 years old this year.

"Our crews take an incredible amount of pride in what they do," said MBA Administrator Bob Sweeney. "I would describe our maintenance activities as daunting or difficult, as opposed to dirty. But, it takes a special person to meet the challenges of the job. Our crews are preserving the integrity of the bridge. They are the reason it will be here at least another 50 years."

The Discovery Channel program is expected to focus on a cable painting project above the Straits, and/or preventive maintenance inside one of the tower cells.
MBA Chief Engineer Kim Nowack said the visit by Rowe and his show is an opportunity to "gain national exposure for our employees and will showcase the awesome work they do that often goes unnoticed."

Arnold Line hires union
If you're headed to the Straits of Mackinac this summer, and intend to take a ferry to Mackinac Island, now hear this.

The Arnold Line is the only one of the three ferry services that employ union members. The International Longshoremen's Association and the Seafarers International Union represent Arnold Line workers.

 

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