'Robot' Welders As Labor Boost On Tappan Zee Bridge Piles Spur Controversy
With qualified welders in short supply on the $3.9-billion Tappan Zee bridge north of New York City, contractors have brought in robots from Louisiana—a move that prompted new disagreement among organized labor, nonunion groups and project owner the New York Thruway Authority over the job's project labor agreement.
The robotic welders, supplied by Lafayette, La.-based Wilkinson Technologies, which specializes in offshore energy applications, are needed to speed installation of the bridge's giant piles, which measure up to 8 ft in diameter.
About 25 machines have been supplied to the bridge project since May, with each requiring a four-person crew to operate, said the authority.
While robots can work up to twice as fast as workers with fewer defects, the machines required human intervention to prevent problems in the welding process, with a mixed success rate, according to a welding consultant interviewed by The Lower Hudson Journal-News.
Open-shop contractors claim the project's labor agreement limits use of nonunion workers. “Non-union employees don’t get a fair shot at working on this project,” says Ben Brubeck, director of government affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors.
According to a Thruway Authority spokesman, all labor alternatives, including the machines from Wilkinson, have been necessary because expertise is lacking.
In a series of initial welding tests administered by the project's joint venture contractor Tappan Zee Constructors, only 23% of candidates passed. The Fluor-American Bridge-led team says this number has improved to 35% recently, but worker training has required a major investment of time and resources.
Union officials say the size of the project and its unique requirements have generated a “learning curve,” for welders.
“Local labor leaders [have] said TZC changed methods five times to date, which has made it more difficult to train and certify welders,” said Mike Cavanaugh, vice president of The New York City District Council of Carpenters, which includes New York City-based Local 1556 of the Dockbuilders and Timbermen union. “We received a new welding procedure from [Tappan Zee Constructors] less than a month before work began on the permanent piles. Every time the procedure was changed, we accommodated the change and retrofitted the labor technical college welding school. The test passing rate is now at about 35%, the industry average.”
ABC says that the union hiring halls have just been unable to supply the project with enough experienced local welders. “There are qualified welders in the region who cannot work on this project unless they sign the [labor] agreement and that shrinks the labor pool,” Brubeck says.
“Project labor agreements sell themselves on guaranteeing a local labor source, but staff at the governor’s office have said only 70% of the labor is coming from local manpower, and that is pretty low when you guarantee 100%,” Brubeck says. “Not only are these jobs going out of state, they’re going to robots.”
The unions and Brian Conybeare, special advisor to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the Tappan Zee Bridge, disagree.
“In fact, more than 70% of the union workers on the job in April call New York home and more than 91% are from the tri-state region,” Conybeare says. “Like all major construction projects, there will be changes in workforce needs based upon the type of construction activity going on at any given time, but we are committed to putting New Yorkers to work and including as many New York-based companies in the project as possible.”
Cavanaugh says the labor situation now is improving. “In fact we have members still being hired for the project on a weekly basis,” he says. “Currently, the need for welders is reduced due to a lack of steel pilings being delivered to the job site, but no additional layoffs have occurred.”