By Antigone Barton
The people who raise and lower the bridges that link the mainland to the island have little in common but the water that flows between them.
Some are retired: Accountants, iron workers, Realtors, fire fighters, truck drivers and a professional golfer have made up their ranks. Some are parents looking to make ends meet.
All work part-time without benefits, with rotating schedules, the solitary nature of the job giving them little contact with each other.
In the last year, however, they came together, first voting to join Local 487 of the Union of Operating Engineers last August and then forging their first contract as union members this spring.
It was a remarkable achievement for workers in a state where the impetus to seek collective representation is weakened by a law that allows employees to enjoy the benefits of a union contract in their workplace without becoming members of the union themselves, James Albritton, now retired president of the Local 487, said.
“I am so proud of them,” Albritton said.
The union negotiated with ISS, a San Antonio, Texas-based company that has a contract to operate South Florida’s bridges.
Most bridges have scheduled openings on the hour and half-hour. While the mechanics of opening and closing bridges are easy — flip a few switches, push a couple of buttons, the work requires care and precision, one worker said requesting anonymity because ISS does not allow employees to speak with the media. The hard part, he said, is clearing the bridge of crossing cars and pedestrians who try to beat it under the barrier, before the bridge rises, and making sure boat traffic is out of the way before lowering it.
Bridge tenders’ duties also include reciting a verbatim script to captains who request boat openings outside of scheduled times, or when emergency vehicles are enroute between island and mainland, Albritton said.
About 175 bridge tenders, down the east coast of Florida from Fort Pierce to Hollywood, are affected by the contract which raised wages from $9.25 an hour to $10.25 after the first three months of employment.
It is a “starter contract,” said Scott Singer, now president of Local 487, “The first contract is always the most difficult.”
An increase in wages was important to the workers, Albritton said, because, while their jobs are part time, the rotating schedule they worked — 24 hours one week and 32 the next — put opportunities to make money through additional jobs out of reach.
The drive to unionize was sparked, though, by what workers considered disrespectful treatment, including being reprimanded for taking days off, Albritton said. A representative of ISS did not respond to a request for comments.
Six bridge tenders took the lead in the effort, including one who drove from bridge to bridge, to talk to workers. About 145 of 175 workers voted, more than 51 percent of them in favor of joining the union, Albritton said. Ú