Last month, a crane tipped over at a large construction project at St. Marys Cement Plant in Charlevoix. No one was hurt, but a disagreement has unfolded between people who think the incident is a fluke and people who say it’s one of many safety issues.
In May, a group of 30 union workers picketed on the side of U.S. 31 in Charlevoix, holding up signs that say, "honk for workplace safety." Most of them are working on a construction project at St. Marys Cement Plant. It’s a huge rebuild with more than 400 workers. They get some honks. Other drivers ignore them.
Jamie Pierce is a union electrician taking a pay hit for the day to picket. He's from Kingsley. He says he worries about his safety every day.
"I mean I’ve been on job sites where people died and didn’t go home," Pierce says. "And I’ve got a five-year-old. I want to go home at the end of the day."
Pierce says construction work is inherently risky, but this job is different.
"This is the most unsafe job I’ve been to in my 20 years of construction work" he says.
Doug Angeloff, an electrician from Alabama, agrees. This is his first time picketing in his almost 30-year career, and that’s because recently, a big piece of metal fell six feet behind him.
"It probably weighed about 50 pounds and that probably dropped from about 30 to 40 feet above me," says Angeloff. "And it hit the ground. It didn’t bounce. So it was pretty heavy."
He says he had no control over it. Another worker dropped it.
"I’m probably one of the people out here [picketing] that was the closest to getting killed," he says.
Angeloff says he heard someone did lose their job because of it.
There have been other incidents. One worker broke his leg and then the crane tipped over in early May.
When asked if a crane tipping over is a normal occurrence on a job site, Angeloff just laughs.
"No, ma'am," he says. "I mean it’s not funny, but it’s ... unbelievable."
The view from St. Marys Cement Plant
Randy Pryor, the operations manager at St. Marys Cement, says the plant is a safe place to work, probably safer than average.
"I take all concern for safety very seriously," says Pryor. "Our objective here is zero incidents every day."
Pryor does acknowledge accidents have happened like the crane tipping and the broken leg. He says mistakes happen.
"It takes a lot of folks and a lot of man hours, and it takes a lot of hard, dirty, cold, wet, dark work at times."
He says when mistakes happen, they investigate them and make changes to keep the site safe.
"Not only do we need to be diligent because we want to send people home safely every day, we have to be diligent because we’re being watched," Pryor says.
"But that’s not the motivation," he adds.
The cement plant is monitored by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. MSHA inspects the site unannounced at least twice a year. MSHA declined to comment for this story, but public documents indicate the recorded number of safety citations went up from 39 last December to 67 this May. That’s a more than 40 percent increase.
A spokesperson for St. Marys parent company Votorantim Cimentos says that increase can be connected to an increase in hours spent on the job site. He said from December to May the number of citations per hours worked actually decreased by nearly 38 percent.
Union workers still contend the job is less safe since a California company called Vezer Industrial Professionals, Inc. took over the project this February. Vezer hires non-union workers and Frank Vezér, the company CEO, said in an email that the problem has "an aggressive union undertone."
"I can see how somebody on the outside looking in would say, ‘oh that’s just a bunch of union guys that are butt hurt because their guys didn’t get the job,'" says Travis Eastman, the union president at Northern Michigan Building Trades. "But if they were doing things right we wouldn’t have a reason to be out there picketing."
He says union tradesmen have worked alongside plenty of non-union contractors in the past without complaint because the job site was safe.
At the picket line many union workers said they thought the St. Marys job site is particularly unsafe because some of the Vezer workers aren't properly trained. They also suspect some are undocumented.
"You know, I’m just gonna say it," says Eastman. "The Hispanics from the south and possibly even south of the border are up here doing work that tradesmen from Michigan can be doing."
He says that’s not a union thing; it’s a local tradesman thing. Eastman says there could be some deep-rooted racism at play.
"I think probably what really revved it up and fueled the fire so to speak is, you know, when they start showing up and the guys saw who they were and what they were. I think their feathers probably went up a little bit," he says.
Eastman says workers would have gotten over it if they weren’t in danger at the job site.
Frank Vezér didn’t outright call it racism, but he said some workers are probably not comfortable with the “diversification that you see within our company.” He says "our team includes senior crew members, both male and female, with various heritages, from African-American to Hispanic and Indian, including my own background of Portuguese-Hungarian descent."
Vezér says it’s actually his workers that are in danger. He says one of his female safety officers was beaten up. The rumor is a couple of guys caught her outside her rental house and beat her up so badly she was in the hospital for a few days. Union workers speculate that non-union workers did it because they were pissed off after she wrote them up for safety violations.
Frank Vezér wouldn’t speculate but said the attack has severely affected his team, and they’ll do everything to keep them safe.
There have been so many rumors flying around in the past month. It’s hard to tell what’s true. Electrician Jamie Pierce at the picket line puts it well:
"That’s the thing, you hear so much. And it’s just like anything else, it’s probably somewhere in the middle of everything," he says.