Putting unions to work

Our view: Legislation designed to steer construction jobs on projects supported with city money to Baltimore residents hands too much power to organized labor

April 05, 2010

The stated intent of Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry's project labor agreement bill couldn't be nobler. The legislation notes the sky-high unemployment rate in Baltimore City (16 percent, more than double the statewide rate) and says the city should be using the influence of its spending on construction contracts to put more Baltimore residents to work. The trouble is, what the bill actually requires is for contractors to hire workers from local union halls, and that's not the same thing.

Supporters of Mr. Henry's legislation, organized under the Get Baltimore Working Campaign, say that the bill would require all city building projects of more than $5 million to be constructed under community partnership agreements and that those agreements would only allow city workers to be hired for the projects.

But here's what the bill actually says: "The agreement must require all contractors that perform work on a covered construction project to use the hiring halls of the signatory qualified construction unions as their first source of employees for the covered construction project." Nowhere does it say those employees must be residents of the city, or even the state. The law doesn't even say that the hiring halls have to be in Baltimore, just that the unions in question represent or seek to represent Baltimore residents.

The bill would require the construction unions to "exert their best efforts" to recruit city residents to participate in their hiring halls and to assist them to qualify for union apprenticeship programs. What that means is more potential members for the unions, not necessarily more city workers on jobs. After all, the law doesn't require the new recruits from the city be given any sort of preference in hiring.

Councilman Henry says that a more direct approach might not pass legal muster but that such preferences could be written into the community partnership agreements on a case-by-case basis. He figures there's no way the members of the Board of Estimates would fail to use their newfound power to make sure the agreements steer jobs to city workers. He's surely right that they would try, but there would be three parties to the negotiations: the city, the contractors and the unions. It's hard to see why the unions would sign off on agreements that weren't to their benefit, and the unions' goals aren't necessarily the same as the city's.

Despite a strong organized labor tradition in Baltimore's port, shipyards and steel mills, the construction industry here is largely not unionized. Less than 15 percent of area construction workers belong to unions, and critics of the bill, which would affect any construction project worth more than $5 million that receives city money or tax breaks, say the scarcity of union construction workers would cause the costs of building in Baltimore to skyrocket if the bill passes. An analysis compiled by the bill's opponents cites studies in states where these project labor agreements are common to argue that the legislation could increase construction costs by as much as 20 percent.

It's unclear how valid those comparisons are in Baltimore, where prevailing wage laws have been in place for more than a decade. But the impact on the city's goals to provide more opportunities for minority contractors is clearer. Union shops are even rarer among minority contractors in this region, so this legislation could make it more difficult to meet the city's minority contracting goals.

Finding ways to leverage city construction projects to put more Baltimore residents back to work is a great idea, but this legislation is, at best, a convoluted way to do it. Mr. Henry says he's open to other mechanisms for achieving his goal. He should explore them rather than seeking to hand so much power to unions whose priority is the betterment of their members, not necessarily the hiring of unemployed Baltimoreans.

Readers respond
As a construction estimator/project manager who has worked both union and open shops for over 30 years, I can guarantee you the additional cost of this bill is at least 20 percent. You are right that prevailing wages already inflate the labor costs on city projects, but open shop contractors can still use their own work force. By forcing an open shop contractor to hire from the union halls, the quality of employees will plummet. Does anyone really think that the unions will send their best trained, hardest working tradesmen to the open shop contractors forced to hire their members? No.

Worked both sides

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