Underground, beneath the paths students are taking to walk to class on a typical Monday, the classrooms they are studying in, and the 175-foot-tall University of Detroit Mercy Memorial Tower that announces the venerable institution to the world, Cameron Gardner is in a tunnel. Gardner is an Operating Engineers 324 member and plumber, and he is showing the labyrinth of tunnels where the steam, water, gas and other utility pipes are housed. More importantly to Gardner, these are where the access can be found to maintain and fix these necessary utilities that make the University run.
“Watch your head,” he says, ducking down. The tunnels range in size from the one he’s currently in (a relatively comfortable six and a half feet tall) to much smaller and confined. “These were built in the Twenties and house all of the utilities for the buildings on campus. From in here, we can access the lines and fix them, so you get used to being in here pretty quick.”
Maintenance of these complex systems is just a few of the many tasks OE324 members undertake at the school. Operating Engineers 324 represents all the Facility Operations staff for the University of Detroit Mercy. They provide maintenance, plumbing, powerhouse operations, grounds, HVAC, locksmith, electrical, lighting, carpentry, shipping and receiving, fleet mechanics and moving services to all campuses and buildings for the 5,000+ student University. It takes a team with a diverse set of skills to cover so many areas, and the OE324 members here have those skills.
Gardner, who has been at the school (and an OE324 member) since 2007 is one of the group Stewards, along with Mike O’Brien, who is a journeyman electrician and Marvin Thomas who works in Shipping and Receiving. Together they work with a team of over twenty, making sure that the facilities of the University of Detroit Mercy live up to the school’s stellar reputation.
The University of Detroit was founded in 1877 in Downtown Detroit and moved most of the University’s programs to the current McNichols campus in 1927. That is when the tunnels, clock tower and original buildings were completed. In 1990, the University of Detroit merged with Mercy College of Detroit, making the University of Detroit Mercy the largest private, Catholic university in Michigan.
The University offers more than 100 academic degrees and programs of study through seven schools and colleges: School of Law, School of Dentistry, College of Health Professions & McAuley School of Nursing, School of Architecture, College of Engineering & Science, College of Business Administration, College of Liberal Arts. The University of Detroit also has 17 NCAA Division I athletic teams.
The school includes four campuses, spans over 96 acres, and has 35 buildings totaling 1,689,483 sq. ft of space. All of these are maintained by the team represented by Operating Engineers 324.
On the McNichols campus, the clock tower was originally built-in part to camouflage the chimney for the University’s power plant. It is in that power plant that OE324 Stationary Engineers are hard at work 24/7.
Bill Partin is the 1st Lead Engineer for the campus and keeps the impressive boilers operating and maintained. He oversees a team of nine Stationary Engineers – three full time and six part time – and makes sure they are always adhering to Detroit Post-of-Duty requirements. Partin was an Operator for the Detroit Public Schools for many years before coming to U of D Mercy eleven years ago and knows firsthand the value of an OE324 education as a former Apprentice and graduate of the Local 547 (later 324) program.
On this day, he is joined by Paul Bass, a fellow Stationary Engineer and former instructor at the OE324 Stationary Engineer Education Center in Detroit. Together, they are performing routine maintenance on a boiler for safety. Both Partin and Bass stress the importance of education and training through the OE324 program as important keys to safety and success.
“When you get union Stationary Engineers, you get qualified people, people who know what they’re doing with respect to safety and operation,” explains Partin. “There’s a lot of energy in this place, and it requires qualified people to keep it under control.”
That is why Partin is a proud Operating Engineers 324 member.
“The local has been great for me, from training to retirement – a lot of advantages I would not have had otherwise.”
The partnership with Operating Engineers 324 has been beneficial to the University, says Dave Vandelinder, Director of Facility Operations & Construction Management for University of Detroit Mercy.
“The University’s partnership with OE324 has helped create a team that is knowledgeable, forward thinking, proactive and flexible enough to meet the ever-changing need of the University,” says Vandelinder. “The union hall has aided in safety training and sharpening the skills of our team. Management and union members form a team that communicates freely with each other working toward a common goal. That goal is to provide our students with an environment that nurtures the educational process.”
It’s that helping students that Jamahl Richardson enjoys most. Working as skilled maintenance means Richardson does a variety of tasks.
“Everything from drywall and painting to fixing windows, light carpentry and helping move things.”
Richardson came to the University of Detroit Mercy 21 years ago for a summer job.
“My dad worked there doing skilled maintenance. I was at school and home for the summer and my dad let me know there was a position open for a grounds truck driver for the summer.” Richardson worked through the summer and stayed, moving from driver to grounds maintenance and eventually skilled maintenance.
Richardson explains that the team needs to work together as a cohesive unit at all times. He points to the snow removal that takes place throughout the winter as an example.
“To remove the snow, we have to work around a lot of moving parts. Students going to classes, cars driving through the lots. We split up into teams – people handling porches and steps, others doing walkways and the trucks (plowing) the parking lot,” he explains.
“It’s like a big puzzle and each team member has a piece, so when we put them together, we get big things done.”
It’s helping the students in the university that he is most proud of. “Getting to meet and interact with the students and letting them know they have someone they can come to when they need something.”
Over in the HVAC shop, OE324 members Howard Barton, Chris Connor, and Scott Kaminski are in an office next door to their shop. Kaminski has been at the University for 30 years, Connor for 15 and Barton for eight. Maintaining the HVAC for such a large campus (as well as other campuses) is a big job, but the challenges are what they enjoy the most.
“Every day is different,” explains Barton. “Sometimes we’re fixing motors, replacing heating coils, finding steam leaks – it really can be so many different things. It’s neat because of the variety. We have hot water, chilled water, steam, electric – this many different systems mean this many different possible jobs.”
Connor explains that jobs get prioritized by the impact they have on students and faculty.
“If it’s the residents halls, it’s a priority one. Same thing for classrooms,” he explains. “If it’s a small air leak, or a part of campus not in daily use, it might be a (lesser) priority.”
“But eventually we get to them all.”
Marvin Thomas has worked in Shipping and Receiving for the University for 13 years and it’s that same connection with both the students of the school and his coworkers he appreciates the most.
“It’s special that I can meet a student on their first day and see them become a graduate over four years. I know the work we do makes this a place where they can get that education and I can feel like I had something to do with their graduation to becoming a dentist or a lawyer.”
“With our team,” Thomas continues, “I work a lot with HVAC and maintenance. We really are like a family and it’s like working with my brothers. We all come together as one family to meet the needs of the University.”
Diverse challenges require diverse solutions. That is why OE324, the members at University of Detroit Mercy and the school itself have partnered on some programs to help.
“OE324 was instrumental in developing the University’s current confined space policies and procedures,” explains Vandelinder. “The union also provided confined space training and OSHA training to our staff. Some of our staff have utilized the training program to advance their career path.”
Last year, OE324 Stationary Engineer Training Coordinator Matt Closs and Instructor Keith Smith taught the confined space training to the team in a class developed specifically for them.
It’s that pride in their membership that the Operating Engineers 324 members working at University of Detroit Mercy exemplify.
“Our percentage of membership is very high,” explains Gardner. “We’re all invested in the union and making our group all it can be.”
He explains how, for instance, they have joined the OE324 Health Care plan.
“Our health care was costing us $400 or $500 a month, we worked with the University to get us on the OE324 plan. With the union health care, we aren’t paying anything out of pocket and we’re taking care of everyone’s families.”
“324 has been there whenever we’ve needed someone. Every union rep we’ve had have all really cared.”
Gardner refers to how their team is special.
“We have a really diverse crew from different backgrounds and skills, but all experts in something. The more we can do, the less there is a need to contract something out. That’s important to us.”
Back underground, Gardner points out one of the smaller tunnels. Barton referred to them as “crawl tunnels,” and it’s easy to see why – the very limited space means someone would have to crawl in and across a considerable distance to fix an issue within.
“Remember, this is a historic campus, so some parts have age issues,” said Barton.
Gardner points out that these tunnels represent why they work so well together as a team.
“These tunnels mean all of our stuff is all together,” he explains, “so all of the things we work on are right next to each other. That’s how we work – all together.”