Council Bill Leaves Contractors Weary Over Job Potential

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A City Council bill proposed to increase local hiring of construction workers is catching heat from local contractors who fear the legislation will, in actuality, shut them out of big projects. If passed, Councilman Bill Henry said the Community Partnership Agreements (CPA) bill would secure major city-funded construction jobs for all Baltimore City contractors. But inconsistency between the wording of the bill and its intention has left local contractors fearful that only the city’s small percentage of union contractors will reap the benefits.

More commonly referred to as a project labor agreement (PLA), a CPA establishes the terms and conditions of employment for construction projects. For any city-funded construction project of $5 million or more, section 23.6B of the bill states, “The [community partnership] agreement must require all contractors that perform work on a covered construction project to use the hiring halls of…construction unions as their first source of employees…”

Pless Jones Sr., president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, believes the unions have their own selfish motives that would leave nonunion contractors like himself with two choices if the bill is passed- pay to join a union or go without work.

“[Unions] want to capture all the work to say everyone has to come to the union,” Jones said. “Then you’d have to go by their regulation.”

Currently, 87 percent of Baltimore’s construction workforce and 95 percent of the city’s minority contractors do not belong to a union, which would exclude almost nine out of 10 local construction workers on city-funded projects. Furthermore, because the legislation does not explicitly state that priority will be given to Baltimore contractors, local workers believe big Baltimore projects will go to outside union contractors. 

“What opponents of the bill keep trying to say that is not true is that the bill requires that you be a union employee to work on jobs,” Henry said. “The bill does not require that. The community partnership agreement, which the bill would authorize, would be able to specifically say that would not been the case.”

The CPA, not the legislation, is where local residency criteria will be made, according to Henry. Each construction job would have its own negotiated agreement to meet the distinct needs of the community the construction takes place in. The district councilor said the bill purposely avoids explicit statements favoring local contractors over outside workers.

“The legislation only lays out the bare minimum,” he said. “You can’t legally just come right out and say you can only hire people from Baltimore City, [but] priority will be given to people who live in Baltimore City when they show up at the union halls.”

But standard union policy states that hiring priority is given first to union members with seniority, second to union apprentices, then to union members with less seniority and last to locals. The bill would not be able to override union mandates, said Attorney Nancy Roberts, managing director of Duane Morris Government Affairs. Instead, she said it would leave fewer than 15 percent of local contractors eligible to work on city-funded construction projects.

“Every [agreement] may be different but none of them will be able to negate that they have to go through hiring halls because that’s in the bill,” said Roberts.

Get Baltimore Working Campaign Executive Director Jason Williams rejects the idea of seniority hiring, and said the CPA bill is set up with local contractors as priority. The campaign, which is backing the bill, is an effort by the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) to create more job opportunities in construction for Baltimore residents.

Williams echoes Henry’s sentiment that the legislation does not give preference to union members. Instead, he said unions would act as community partners to ensure local hiring.

“We are able to do that through the union hiring hall to give [local contractors] a structure for the job and help sell you as an individual to construction sites,” Williams said. “They are the priority.”

But Jones isn’t buying that. To truly create more job opportunities for local contractors, he said it would be best if the bill were “scrapped.”

Giving local construction jobs to outsiders is such a frequent occurrence that it has seemingly become the rule as opposed to the exception, National Minority Contractors Association President Arnold Jolivet said. He supports the concept of the bill but says it will only be effective if amendments are made.

“Baltimore has a considerable number of construction-related jobs the local community doesn’t get,” Jolivet said. “We’ve got to do something.”