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Minority contractors protest Baltimore City Council bill that would require union agreements for major contracts

Douglas T. Lucas, center, an inspector for the Department of Public Works, offers suggestions to foreman David Zimcon on improving the flow of traffic past a worksite at Fayette and Eutaw streets in 2003. A proposed bill before Baltimore City Council would allow labor unions to set the terms for how employees are hired on city construction projects.
Douglas T. Lucas, center, an inspector for the Department of Public Works, offers suggestions to foreman David Zimcon on improving the flow of traffic past a worksite at Fayette and Eutaw streets in 2003. A proposed bill before Baltimore City Council would allow labor unions to set the terms for how employees are hired on city construction projects.(Sun photo by John Makely)

A bill that would allow labor unions to set the terms for how employees are hired on city construction projects has run into early opposition from Baltimore’s minority and nonunion contractors.

Speaking in front of City Hall on Monday, representatives of several construction firms said the proposed legislation would be a burden on the city’s nonunion shops, many of which are minority-owned and employ people rejected by union groups like those with criminal records.

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“If City Council is concerned about local hires, this is the last thing they should do,” said Mike Henderson, president of Associated Builders & Contractors of Baltimore.

The proposed bill, which is still in its infancy, would require project labor agreements, a prehire collective bargaining agreement between a contractor and a labor organization that establishes a labor group to represent everyone who works on the project. Championed by Council President Brandon Scott and Councilwoman Shannon Sneed, the bill would apply to all city construction projects valued at $25 million or more, or long-term capital improvement plans of more than $15 million that involve projects at multiple locations.

The bill was introduced Jan. 27 and assigned to the City Council’s Labor Committee. A hearing on the bill has yet to be held.

Scott and Sneed, both Democrats, have argued that the bill would increase local hiring and ensure competitive wages and benefits. A labor group would serve as collective bargaining representative for everyone working on the project. The agreements would contain guarantees against strikes and other work disruptions, along with procedures for resolving labor disputes.

The contractors and allies who protested at City Hall on Monday argued the legislation as proposed would actually discourage local hiring.

Natalia Luis, chief operations officer and co-owner of M. Luis Construction, said the unions who will dictate the terms of the agreements are based in Philadelphia or Richmond, Virginia. An infusion of outside labor will be inevitable, she said, pushing local workers out of jobs.

Robert Dashiell, an attorney who spoke at Monday’s rally, chided Scott and Sneed for introducing the legislation without studying whether such agreements were needed. Other states prohibit them, he noted.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat, has yet to publicly comment on the proposed legislation, but his office has received numerous letters in opposition, spokesman Lester Davis said Monday.

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One such letter was from lobbyist Sean Malone, representing the Maryland Minority Contractors Association and the Greater Baltimore Committee, who said project labor agreements could double the costs for contractors by forcing them to contribute to pension funds, health care projects and union dues of which their workers are not beneficiaries.

Other letters questioned the political motivations behind the proposed legislation. Both the bill’s proponents and opponents have political entanglements. Scott and Sneed have both received multiple union endorsements. Scott, who is running for mayor in a crowded Democratic primary, has been endorsed by the Laborers International Union of North America.

Sneed, who is running for council president, received substantial donations from labor groups this year, including $6,000 from the Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 486, $6,000 from the Baltimore Washington Construction & Public Employees Laborers and $2,000 from the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

One of Scott’s opponents in the mayoral race, former Democratic Mayor Sheila Dixon, works with Maryland Minority Contractors. Pless Jones Sr., the president of that group who also led Monday’s rally, gave Dixon’s campaign the maximum donation of $6,000 in January, campaign finance records show.

Councilman Leon Pinkett and former Councilman Carl Stokes also oppose the bill and spoke out Monday. Both Democrats are running for council president against Sneed.

Speaking into a bullhorn in front of City Hall and taunting Sneed and Scott to “come out," Jones encouraged the crowd gathered to remember on the day of elections where each council member falls on the legislation. The Maryland primaries are April 28.

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“We’ve got to beat our councilmen up,” he said. “If they make their bed on April 28, we’ve got to make our own.”

Scott released a statement Monday saying he continues to believe project labor agreements are a tool to give city residents better wages and benefits.

“As I’ve said before, there will be a meaningful hearing process. I’m encouraging the participation of all stakeholders, so we can create legislation that puts Baltimoreans to work and helps our city grow,” he said.

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