Labor beats real estate industry in fire damper fight

Sheet Metal Workers protest in City Council on Dec. 4, 2018. (Jake Blumgart/PlanPhilly)

Sheet Metal Workers protest in City Council on Dec. 4, 2018. (Jake Blumgart/PlanPhilly)

controversial bill to require licensed technicians to regularly inspect fire-prevention devices in Philadelphia high-rises passed unanimously in City Council on Thursday.

Councilman Allan Domb, who sells real estate, recused himself from the vote.

The fire and smoke dampers subject to inspection under the bill are designed to seal off a building’s HVAC system, preventing smoke and flames from spreading. The bill also requires inspections of other-smoke control systems, and it stipulates that licensed sheet metal technicians complete all inspections.

The work mandated by the regulation is expected to go to members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 19, a politically influential labor union that provides training for licenses and has tried to pass similar legislation on two prior occasions. Real estate and hotel industry groups have argued the bill is a make-work measure that will benefit sheet metal workers while driving up the cost of construction and development in the city.

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Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration pushed late last year for an amendment that would have exempted fully buildings with sprinklers and structures that have automatic fire alarm systems. When the union tried to move the unamended version forward at the end of last year, shouting matches broke out at Council chambers.

The hotel industry circulated a letter to council members before Thursday’s vote urging them to vote against the legislation.

“Requiring that every building’s fire dampers be inspected … does not increase safety at all, and that’s why nowhere else in the country is this required,” wrote Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.

Grose predicted that the inspections will “increase the costs of maintaining every large building in the city, including hospitals, dormitories, hotels, and apartment and office buildings.”

The union disputes the industry’s characterization of the bill, noting that others who are not in the union would be qualified to inspect the dampers and that a sheet metal technician license doesn’t guarantee union membership. But the group also disputed a refrain from the real estate industry that suggested third-party engineers conduct the inspections instead of sheet metal technicians.

“Would you want a third party working on your car,” Bryan Bush, the union’s assistant business manager, asked. “If you have a  Cadillac, why wouldn’t you bring it to a Cadillac dealer to work on it?”

Local 19 invested significant political capital in the bill. Sheet metal union members repeatedly flooded the Council chambers with members bearing signs that read “People Over Profit$.”  The union, which donates to political campaigns, retained the lobbying services of Frank DiCicco, a former councilman and the current chair of the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. All of City Council and the mayor are up for re-election this year.

The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill’s passage, but Kenney has never vetoed a bill passed by Council.

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