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Baltimore Council bill would require union agreements before contractors win major city projects

Baltimore would require collective bargaining agreements for major city projects under a proposal introduced Monday before the City Council. In this Feb. 15, 2019, file photo, senior construction instructor Larry Neighoff of the Baltimore Washington Laborer Training Center, gives direction to Michael Mitchell, center, on how to operate a skid steer loader.
Baltimore would require collective bargaining agreements for major city projects under a proposal introduced Monday before the City Council. In this Feb. 15, 2019, file photo, senior construction instructor Larry Neighoff of the Baltimore Washington Laborer Training Center, gives direction to Michael Mitchell, center, on how to operate a skid steer loader.(Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)

Baltimore would require collective bargaining agreements for major city projects under a proposal introduced Monday before the City Council.

Councilwoman Shannon Sneed and Council President Brandon Scott are heading a push for the legislation. They said it would lead to more local workers earning wages that could sustain their families.

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Groups representing contractors opposed the bill, saying it would put minority businesses at a disadvantage and ignores the reality of the city’s largely nonunion construction workforce.

The Democratic council members argued structural change is necessary to tackle problems that have long plagued Baltimore, including unemployment and crime.

“We have the ability to begin changing the status quo by extending career opportunities to residents in historically disadvantaged communities,” Sneed said.

After Sneed introduced the Project Labor Agreements bill Monday night, union members in the audience cheered.

The way the city awards contracts isn’t working, Scott said, because contractors don’t hire enough Baltimore residents. The ordinance would set standards on local hiring, wages and benefits before granting contracts for big public projects.

Unions and contractors would have to establish agreements ahead of any contract valued above $25 million or long-term capital projects at multiple locations that are together valued at more than $15 million.

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.

Pless Jones, president of Maryland Minority Contractors, said the bill would be “devastating” for the people he represents and pledged to fight it.

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Mike Henderson, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Greater Baltimore said the effort was about creating more union jobs.

“Whenever unions push a project labor agreement, they always talk about local jobs. The reality is, it has the exact opposite effect," Henderson said.

There were also concerns among these contractor groups that Scott’s support for the bill was related to the local council of Laborers’ International Union of North America recently endorsing Scott for mayor in a crowded Democratic primary.

Scott said the legislation wasn’t part of his discussion with the union about its endorsement. Rather, he said, he told union officials about his vision for combating crime and improving education.

One of his opponents, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, works with Maryland Minority Contractors. Jones gave her campaign the maximum donation of $6,000 earlier this month, according to online state campaign finance records.

Dixon said she understands the rationale behind creating project labor agreements, but “in places primarily nonunion, like Baltimore, it actually harms workers.”

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Other business at Monday’s City Council meeting included passing a bill aimed at making Baltimore a “trauma-responsive city."

A legislative fix allowing Baltimore to collect millions in taxes on Uber and Lyft rides also advanced.

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