Contract with trade unions still under considerationA proposed county agreement with the trade unions will keep local workers employed close to home with well-paying jobs and benefits. Or it will favor union members who are not from the immediate area over local workers who are not union, or those who are, but don't have much seniority. Or maybe it won't make much difference one way or the other.
By: Karin Smith, Lake County News Chronicle
A proposed county agreement with the trade unions will keep local workers employed close to home with well-paying jobs and benefits. Or it will favor union members who are not from the immediate area over local workers who are not union, or those who are, but don't have much seniority. Or maybe it won't make much difference one way or the other.
The Lake County commissioners have spent several recent meetings discussing a request by the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council to require successful bidders on county projects of $150,000 or more to sign a project labor agreement (PLA).
These types of agreements, which have been signed by St. Louis County, the cities of Duluth, Superior and Virginia, and the University of Minnesota-Duluth among others, require 50 percent union labor and prevailing wages for the workers.
Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Trades Council, has come to two county board meetings in the past month along with a group of members to tell the union side of the story.
Their position is that union members earn good wages and benefits, allowing them to remain in their home communities, raise their families and contribute to the tax base. The PLAs prevent contractors from out of the area from bringing in low-paid non-union labor and underbidding local, union contractors.
Union labor provides safe and fair working conditions, ensures high-quality work and under a PLA, guarantees the county there will be no work stoppages so that projects are completed on time, said Olson.
On the other side, it's not clear exactly how local is being defined. Olson has said the union members would come from a “30-mile radius” or a “35-mile radius” or “the Arrowhead region.” When a show of hands was asked for among the 10 union members in attendance at the Feb. 3 board meeting, none were from Lake County, though Olson said he could get some local members to attend a board meeting.
The commissioners considered putting a requirement in the PLAs that locals would have priority, union or not.
Commissioner Rick Goutermont, who at one time was a union laborer on a job in Finland not far from his home, said he was bumped by a union carpenter from Duluth.
That's the way seniority works, he said--a guy who has been paying union dues for 12-15 years isn't going to give up a job to a new member, no matter where he lives.
He also said it would be difficult to verify and enforce whether locals were being given priority, as it would be the union who sends their members out to the jobs. If a local worker complained, by the time the county got involved and anything was resolved, the project could be over.
Commissioner Brad Jones, who supports having PLAs, said that there aren't enough specialized tradespeople in Lake County such as ironworkers, sheet metal workers and bricklayers to do all the work on large projects, and that union labor from farther away would be needed.
Only a few constituents have weighed in with their commissioners about the proposal. One concern was how non-union workers would be treated by union members on the same job.
The agreements include language designed to prevent discrimination. Olson said that they are always open to new members, even though there aren't a lot of jobs available right now. They have a program called "Helmets to Hardhats" that encourages returning service members to join the unions.
The commissioners discussed the quality work that has been done by non-union contractors for the county. The consensus among the commissioners was that if they did sign an agreement it would apply only to projects of $250,000 and above.
There was also a sense that it would be hard to determine whether or not PLAs would raise the cost of county projects and whether they would discourage some contractors from bidding on them at all.
Another concern was whether agreeing to require PLAs would expose the county to litigation in some way or violate terms of some federally-funded projects. County attorney Russ Conrow was asked to look into it.
The commissioners were not aware of any complaints from the other units of government using PLAs, but commissioner Thomas Clifford is waiting for responses to some calls he has made to check on potential problems.
Goutermont said that since 90 percent of the larger local contractors were union anyway, he didn't know what difference PLAs would make. He also said that the things like work stoppages that the PLAs were protecting the county against wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the unions.
While he had been inclined to support the PLA resolution, as he looked into it he was changing his mind. He said he did like the idea of putting local Arrowhead people to work. Setting the higher dollar amount of $250,000 for requiring PLAs and using a two-year sunset clause to allow the board to reassess how they were working would make it easier to for him defend the PLA to constituents who oppose it.
The commissioners have not yet decided when to take a vote on the resolution.
The next meeting of the Lake County Board of Commissioners is Thursday, Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. in the Lake County Courthouse.