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Reversing its own investigators, the state Labor Department has rejected the Ironworker union's claim of jurisdiction over window work in Erie County.

The ruling is a regional victory for glass contractors and, indirectly, for the glaziers' union, which is in a statewide dispute with the Ironworkers.

At stake in the dispute is the right to install windows in public buildings, estimated to be worth $30 million a year statewide. Replacement of old windows with more energy-efficient ones is a major task at schools and other public buildings, contractors say.

"They (glaziers) drove us right out of that business," said Thomas Michaels, business agent of the Ironworkers Local 6 in Buffalo.

Under state prevailing wage law, contractors on public projects must pay workers at union rates for their craft. In Erie County, the Ironworker rate for window installer is $32.61 including benefits, $4 higher than the Glazier rate.

The department dismissed a complaint filed by Michaels against two window contractors, W. Wheeler Construction in Elma and Cortland Glass Co. in Cortland. The companies paid glaziers' rates for work -- claimed by the Ironworkers -- at the West Seneca and Cheektowaga school districts.

Labor Commissioner James J. McGowan signed the decision Jan. 10; Michaels said the union will appeal.

The dispute grows out of a construction industry shift to pre-glazed window frames in the 1960s and '70s. Before the shift, Glaziers put glass into frames built by Ironworkers. With pre-glazed windows, Glaziers inherited the task of installing frame-and-glass units into buildings, glass contractors say.

Ironworkers contend that the rival construction union trampled over their jurisdiction. In Western New York, Glaziers Local 660 negotiated contracts with employers that effectively cut Ironworkers out of window-installation work, Michaels said.

Officers of Local 660 didn't return phone calls seeking comment. The union, a unit of the Painters International, represents about 200 glass workers.

The department's action was hailed by glass contractors, who face similar disputes with the Ironworkers around upstate New York.

"We'd like to think we don't have to fight these case by case, spending our hard-earned money," said Gerald Pollock, president of Cortland Glass Co. and leader of a window contractors' association.

The department is withholding more than $100,000 in payments to glass contractors involved in similar wage disputes with the Ironworkers, he said.

But the Ironworkers will appeal the local case and continue fighting for jurisdiction in other counties, Michaels said.

"I'm just beside myself that the (Labor Department) hearing officer went against us," he said. The decision "means if you can steal somebody's work and do it long enough, you can change the prevailing wage rate."

Haney Erector Services, an Ironworkers contractor in Buffalo that performed window installation, is in bankruptcy proceedings, he said.

The department's decision applies only to Erie County and doesn't set a precedent for cases pending in other counties, Labor Department spokeswoman Betsy McCormack said. At least five window contractors around the state face prevailing wage charges for paying glaziers' rates.

The ruling astonished both the Ironworkers and their opponents, neither of whom thought that a department hearing officer would reverse the findings of investigators for the Labor Department's Bureau of Public Work.

Hearing officer Gary P. Troue found that, while both the Glaziers and Ironworkers claim jurisdiction over window installation, it is the Glaziers who currently perform most of the work. For example, Glazier contractor Clayton B. Obersheimer in Buffalo performed the $11 million glass work on the Buffalo International Airport terminal, Troue said.

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