Small-business owners and labor leaders packed the auditorium at Dunbar High School on Thursday to debate a bill that would require local officials to give hiring preference to union employees on city contracts.
The Community Partnership Agreements Bill would encourage unions to train and recruit city residents while prohibiting strikes, said Councilman Bill Henry. Henry sponsored the bill on behalf of the Get Baltimore Working campaign, a project of the local chapter of the Laborers' International Union.
"This is not rocket science. This is very simple," Henry said. "We should be spending [tax money] on our people.
"A lot of problems here in Baltimore City don't have easy solutions," he said, and spoke of recent violence.
"The root cause is that people commit crimes because their lives are unpleasant," he said. His bill, he said, would "try to reduce the number of people in that position."
Critics said the bill would encourage the city to hire union-friendly contractors from surrounding jurisdictions.
"There are not enough union members in this town," said Mike Henderson, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors. He said the bill would "punish local business" and favor "a small but powerful interest group."
Pless B. Jones Sr., owner of P&J Contracting and president of the Maryland Minority Contractor Association, agreed.
"The city can't put a monopoly on work," Jones said. He said the bill would "eliminate small business" and "increase the costs to do work" in an already difficult economy.
But Wyatt Watson Sr., owner of BMW Cleaning Solutions, said that "as a minority subcontractor, I believe this equalizes the playing field with me and large contractors," who he said are more likely to win bids because they ship in outside employees.
Under the legislation, companies entering into contracts with the city worth more than $5 million would be required to seek workers first from local union halls, and only open the hiring pool to others after two business days, according to the bill.
Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano warned that the bill would create "a union monopoly."
"Let's build a wall around Baltimore City," he said, saying that it is unfair for the city to object to outside workers but ask residents from elsewhere in the state to spend money in the city.
"We are a free state. We should have mobility," he said. "Unions should compete in the marketplace with everyone else."
Master electrician Rod Easter, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, said that it's unfair he has had to leave the city where he lives and pays taxes, while other contractors come in from outside city limits, taking the work.
The bill would expire in four years and could only be renewed after the City Council completes a study and holds hearings on its effectiveness.