2/24/08

Union-only goals met by Project Labor Agreement

With Washington's new ballpark a little more than a month from its scheduled completion, the project has failed to meet the majority of hiring goals meant to provide construction jobs to city residents, and the District has not sanctioned any contractor for falling short.

An agreement between the District, the main contractors and the region's major unions calls for half of the journeyman construction hours at the ballpark -- the most lucrative jobs -- to be performed by city residents. The actual hours have amounted to 27 percent.

The project also has missed targets that all new apprentices be city residents and that apprentices work at least one-fourth of the hours devoted to construction. About 87 percent of the new apprentices came from the city, and apprentices account for 19 percent of hours, according to construction records.

"At the end of the day, all of those goals should have been met," said Robert C. Bobb, who drafted the agreement two years ago on behalf of then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). "I can't see that there should be a lot of celebration."

The hiring agreement was critical to winning union and political support for the new ballpark and easing concerns of some D.C. Council members who were wary of the city providing the financing for such an expensive project. Supporters touted the ballpark as a source of jobs in a city where pockets of unemployment remain high, and they enlisted organized labor to put its clout behind the stadium.

By the end of December, 2,719 workers had put in 1.7 million hours on the ballpark along South Capitol Street SE. Ironworkers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons and other tradesmen -- with pay ranging from $10 to $34 an hour -- have swarmed the 21-acre construction site, many working six days a week to have the stadium ready for a March 29 exhibition game between the Nationals and the Orioles.

Their work has been governed by a 21-page agreement spelling out not only their pay and working conditions but how many of them are expected to be D.C. residents. It sets the terms for journeymen, or experienced, workers, and for apprentices, who are learning their crafts.

Many major public works projects, including the Washington Convention Center, have had these sorts of agreements, but the ballpark called for the most aggressive hiring goals ever set by the District. Besides calling for D.C. residents to get a certain share of hours worked at the ballpark, it required contractors to give the city's residents priority if the businesses needed to make new hires to get the job done.

But the number of construction projects in the region -- including enormous developments such as National Harbor in Prince George's County -- has made it difficult to find enough skilled city residents for the ballpark, contractors and union leaders say.

"The hiring halls are tapped out," said Gerard M. Waites, a Washington lawyer who helped negotiate the agreement for the unions. He noted that 750 of the new journeymen and apprentices hired by various contractors for the ballpark have been D.C. residents and pointed to that as a sign that the project has helped many in the city.

And the ballpark has met or exceeded two goals in the agreement: Fifty-one percent of new hires are D.C. residents, and 72 percent of apprenticeship hours have been performed by city residents, well above the goal of 50 percent.

Bobb, who was city administrator under Williams, agrees with representatives of nonunion contractors who say that all of the agreement's goals could have been met with more diligence.

"They weren't high or unexpected," said Bobb, who is now D.C. State Board of Education president. "It's how much do you want something?"

* * *

What many of the city's movers and shakers wanted was professional baseball. Williams worked hard to bring a team to Washington, which had been without one since the Senators left in 1971. But that required a new ballpark and figuring out how to pay for it.

The D.C. Council debated for months about how far the city should go in financing the project, initially estimated to cost $535 million and now about $100 million more than that. For a while, despite the efforts of the Williams administration, the deal's future was shaky.

Union leaders provided political support, but they also pushed hard for a project labor agreement. Such contracts, known as PLAs, outline wages, working conditions and labor grievance procedures. In return, they typically contain clauses barring strikes -- an important factor in this case, since the construction schedule was one of the tightest ever proposed for a major league stadium.

Throughout 2005 and early 2006, city officials and the trade unions had extensive, closed-door discussions about the terms of the labor agreement. The D.C. Council approved the baseball financing package in February 2006, and the labor agreement was signed the next month. Construction began several weeks after that.

The agreement does not require union workers. But it does demand that all workers be paid union rates and that they pay union dues while on the project -- a major plus for organized labor. For the city, the pact held out the prize of good jobs for District residents.

"The building trades are highly important as a political entity," Williams said in an interview last week. And in dealing with them, the former mayor said, he wanted to set "aspirational" hiring goals for residents.

Although the unions and city came away with potential benefits, the agreement drew the ire of nonunion contractors, who unsuccessfully tried to get Congress to intervene and block it.

"It excludes us from the workplace," said John Magnolia, who owns Joseph J. Magnolia Inc., a nonunion plumbing contractor with 400 employees that has been based in the District since the 1950s.

Supporters of the agreement, including union leaders, said there is nothing to prevent nonunion contractors from working on the ballpark. Many smaller subcontractors do not have union employees.

But Magnolia said that he opposes forcing his employees to pay union dues in order for them to work on the ballpark. If those requirements were not there, he said it would have been much easier to reach the hiring goals for employing more city residents.

The outcome of this debate is important because PLAs are proposed for virtually all city-financed construction projects. Washington's labor leaders call the ballpark agreement a model for the future. Joslyn N. Williams, who heads the Metropolitan AFL-CIO, said he will push to have a similar agreement if a District-backed hotel is built near the convention center.

* * *

Since inheriting the agreement when he took office, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who opposed the ballpark while on the council, has had little to say about the performance in meeting hiring goals. In a statement, he said, "We will always push to make sure as many District residents are hired for city projects as possible whether a project labor agreement is in place or not."

Thus far, no one has been penalized for failing to meet the targets for the ballpark. A task force made up primarily of construction executives and union officials reviews hiring monthly. And the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which owns the ballpark, is overseeing the progress of hiring as well. Businesses that fail to meet goals face financial penalties, but the agreement caps the amount at 5 percent of the value of the contract.

Dozens of contractors have received letters asking them to explain why they have fallen short on hiring District residents. Courtland Cox, a sports commission official working on labor issues at the ballpark, said that the overseers are examining whether the contractors made a "good faith effort," as called for in the agreement, before considering taking them to arbitration.

One of the central goals was to win high-paying journeyman jobs for residents. But, Cox said, journeymen "tend to live in Maryland and Virginia."

Labor leaders said the agreement has helped D.C. residents in two key ways. They go to the head of the line in hiring priority when contractors call union halls. And, union officials said, the agreement's focus on apprentices will help with job training and provide a foundation for a city workforce and building a stronger middle class in the District.

Williams acknowledged those successes and rejected the complaints of nonunion contractors, saying that there was enough construction work in the region for everyone. The former mayor, who left office in January 2007, attributed the failure to meet the majority of hiring goals to a combination of factors: Many journeymen were tied up on other projects, the city's workforce was unprepared to qualify for apprenticeship programs, and the agreement wasn't adequately enforced.

But he offered no apologies for the high goals.

"You want to be honest with people," Williams said. "Shoot for high goals and take the consequences."

(washingtonpost.com)

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