The Electrical Worker online
December 2012

A Data Center Rises in the Desert
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For the rest of the country, NSA means the National Security Agency, home of the code warriors and digital spies on the front lines of cyber warfare. For Salt Lake City Local 354, NSA means No Sitting Anymore and a once in a lifetime job putting an entire union back in their boots.

In the desert 25 miles south of Salt Lake City, the NSA is building the $2 billion Utah Data Center. More than a dozen buildings sit on a flat desert plain outside Salt Lake City on an enormous military base, Camp Williams.

James Bamford, author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, says the facility will be the central repository for all the electronic intercepts made by the American intelligence community, and Bamford says it is enormous.

"This is the second largest data center in the U.S., maybe in the world," Bamford said. The 100,000-square-foot server warehouse will be cooled by 60,000 tons of HVAC equipment. On-site, there will be a 65-megawatt substation that will use $40 million per year in energy.

And Local 354 is stringing it all together.

Boom Times

Business Manager Rich Kingery expects that by the time the job is finished in 18 months, the data center will represent over a million man-hours.

They will be hooking up thousands of servers, enough to store by Bamford’s estimate the equivalent of 500 quintillion pages of text. That’s 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 pages.

"It will collect information from listening posts, antennas, satellites. The NSA has intercept equipment all over the world looking for any kind of electronic signal, even non-communication signals like radar," Bamford said. "Anything from a cell phone used in Benghazi to a Chinese radar installation."

Bamford says that it isn’t just overseas communication that will be stored. Global Internet traffic often goes through the United States.

Bamford calls the facility the capstone to a decades long restructuring of the infrastructure of the NSA, what he calls the largest, most expensive and most secret intelligence agency on the face of the earth. Its budget is a secret and no one from the agency has publicly said how the data center will ultimately be used.

At one point in its history, even the name of the NSA was secret.

'Resurgence Agreements’

For Local 354, the data center has meant an end to lean times.

"In 2009, 28 percent of our members were out of work. Some members were laid off for 18 months," said Kingery. "Three-hundred-and-twenty-five journeymen and 80 apprentices sitting, unemployed, waiting for a call to work."

Now, 18 months into the project, nearly a third of the local is working 50 to 60 hours a week. Approximately 430 journeymen, 100 apprentices and, depending on the stage of construction, between 30 and 100 construction electricians and construction wiremen are on-site.

With the recession, Local 354 saw the average number of bids on the commercial and industrial contracts they were trying to win jump from four or five offers to 30 or more.

"All the pressure was coming from the lower end," said Kingery.

Prior to the contract for the data center coming up for bid, Kingery went to his National Electrical Contractors Association partners and together they decided to use the recovery agreement — Kingery calls it the "resurgence agreement" — and bid using composite crews including construction electricians and construction wiremen with journeymen and apprentices.

Kingery says the CEs are mainly used in the early stages of construction, installing conduit. When the building gets close to commissioning, the crew composition switches.

"With the data center project, we signed a PLA to allow CEs on the job and lock in wage and benefits rates for the full duration of the job. We negotiated a dollar an hour higher than the going inside rate at the time because we were able to get the materials handlers and CEs to reduce crew costs," said Kingery.

Since the beginning of the project, 17 CEs have tested and advanced to journeymen and a large number of the CWs have become apprentices.

"We reached lows of as few as 302 apprentices in 2011. We now have roughly 400 apprentices, 133 in the first year alone. Twenty-five percent of the first-year apprentices came in as CWs or materials handlers."

Kingery gives much of the credit to the recovery agreement.

"Since we started this project and our recovery agreement, our membership is up by 300 people. We have 200 travelers working on-site. We can and have captured more work. In addition to the data center, we’ve won smaller projects: a Taco Bell. A Petsmart. Small buildings we’ve never done before. If we had not used these classifications, I would suspect we would have a serious problem."

Using the CE/CW classifications for an industrial project, not as part of a bid for small commercial or residential projects, was controversial at first, says Kingery.

"We try to be transparent. It was controversial but [after] many education-type meetings as to how we use them and how it works, it’s clear. Most every concern or controversial issue that arises is from a lack of understanding," Kingery said.

'No work and a big union is a big problem’

Kingery knows that it won’t always be this good. The local has been severely burned after big projects ended, most recently when a large power plant project left the local with a large number of unemployed electricians.

"No work and a big union is a big problem. The next two years are good, but we are aggressively acquiring work and utilizing variances for these classifications outside of the scope of the recovery agreement to win new projects. We continue to meet with NECA to make sure we don’t rely solely on the Utah Data Center job."

They have two years before the last member walks off the job site. They’ll be left with good wages, a strong union and some amazing stories. None of which they can tell you.

For more on the data center, watch this video:


The National Security Agency Utah Data Center under construction in Bluffdale, Utah. When completed, it will store the secretive cyber-security agency’s electronic intercepts.


Salt Lake City Local 354 Business Manager Rich Kingery