Today’s construction industry is two-faced.
Mark Coles (Courtesy Photo)
One model in construction combines jobs, high-quality training, and education to put workers on a career path with sustainable wages and benefits — the “high road” model. Another, revealed in a 2014 McClatchy Newspapers investigative report, exploits workers in dangerous, low-paying jobs with no upward mobility — the “low road” model.
Unfortunately, Baltimore’s construction market has thrived on the detrimental “low road” model for several decades now — but there’s hope for change. By approving a Community Benefits Agreement for Sagamore Development’s Port Covington project, the Baltimore City Council can create safe, sustainable job opportunities for members of our community.
Under a CBA, developers agree to hire workers in the community where they’re building — and give them decent wages and benefits.
CBAs starkly contrast with the history of Baltimore’s construction market. In 2005, the Maryland government tried to cut all funding for the Prevailing Wage Office — the office that makes sure workers on public construction projects earn fair, livable wages. Despite rain and sleet, Baltimore construction workers joined 1,500 workers’ rights advocates to protest the injustice.
My colleagues and I, along with a broad coalition of community groups, believe a CBA for Port Covington is best suited to address the needs and challenges of our great city. The “high road” approach has already proven successful in cities across the country — including Boston, Cleveland, Seattle, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
Due to its extended history with CBAs, Los Angeles proves to be an insightful case study on the “high road” model — and how its benefits could translate to Baltimore.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the nation, has an active agreement called a Project Stabilization Agreement — very similar to a CBA. Its PSA, valued at $27.5 billion, funds the construction, modernization, and repair of LAUSD’s schools.
Large, complicated development projects like those for an entire school district pose special challenges, like coordinating different types of specialty contractors and craft professionals. Individual agreements can be confusing and inefficient. Instead, PSAs and CBAs streamline expectations, logistics, wages, and benefits for all construction laborers.
These agreements also serve the local community by hiring locally and targeting historically neglected city residents — especially women, people of color, and veterans.
In Los Angeles, the school district project had a goal of hiring 50 percent of its workers from LAUSD’s eight sub-districts¬. And the PSA mandates that up to 30 percent of the project workforce be apprentices — construction trainees who earn while they learn.
The LAUSD PSA goes a step further to engage local community members. Its “We-Build” pre-apprenticeship program recruits and provides remedial training to local residents, then funnels them into formal apprenticeships.
Agreements like these allow developers to create thousands of jobs for local communities. LAUSD’s PSA provided jobs to over 96,000 workers from 2004 to 2011 — with two out of five going to residents in the school district.
In fact, nearly 70 percent of LAUSD PSA’s workers lived in Los Angeles County.
CBA agreements also bolster communities with substantial wages. In just seven years, the LAUSD PSA paid Los Angeles County workers $1.02 billion in wages — with workers earning average hourly wages of $32.29.
Small businesses are also looped into program benefits. LAUSD’s PSA awarded over $4.1 billion spent on construction to small and disadvantaged businesses. Forty-four percent of LAUSD’s prime contractors were small businesses — nearly doubling the project’s original target.
Education and training programs target these small businesses as well. LAUSD’s PSA’s six-week program, “Small Contractor Boot Camp,” equips small contractors — especially women-and minority-owned businesses — with the tools needed to boost their competitive edge in the overall market.
What was so successful in major urban centers like Los Angeles can work wonders for Charm City, too. By using a Community Benefits Agreement at Port Covington, our public construction market will work for the benefit of Baltimore and its residents — not at their expense.
Mark Coles is the Executive Director of the Community Hub for Opportunities in Construction Employment (C.H.O.I.C.E.), an office of North America’s Building Trades Unions that is working with the 28 local unions in the greater Baltimore/Washington, DC/Northern Virginia region.