Politicians as union organizers

Grandstanding amounts to coercion

With The Banks finally under way on the riverfront, you'd think Cincinnati had overcome its penchant for shooting itself in the foot when it comes to economic development. Unfortunately, it seems to be taking dead aim on its metatarsals with the $322 million Queen City Square project, a downtown skyscraper planned to be the city's tallest office tower.

This is a complex deal with many moving parts and mundane issues to resolve among the city, the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, and Western & Southern Financial Group, which is developing the tower.

But even though the deal would be a long-term financial boon for the city, it could be held up or even scuttled because of an extraneous labor issue.

Some City Council members, led by Vice Mayor David Crowley, want Western & Southern to require that Executive Management Services (EMS), the firm it contracts with for janitorial services in its other downtown buildings, become unionized.

This is political grandstanding - a ridiculous demand that amounts to coercion. It could set an awful precedent, slow downtown's economic momentum, and have a chilling effect on other firms that may consider investing in Cincinnati. This is not how the city should do business.

The issue has some urgency because council is set to vote on a series of ordinances - on land conveyance, tax-increment financing and city funding - that must be in place for demolition of an existing garage to take place in July, followed by the start of construction in September.

But Crowley says he'll vote against those ordinances unless Western & Southern agrees to "either have the present contractor allow its workers to unionize (or) find a new contractor."

If Western & Southern does not acquiesce, Crowley said, he and an unspecified number of other council members will oppose the project. The land-transfer vote could come next week, with the others in following weeks. It's unclear if Crowley has enough support to stop the deal.

But that's small consolation to Western & Southern, which feels it was blindsided last week on the union issue. "It really surprised us. We thought everything was fine with the city," said Don Wuebbling, senior vice president and general counsel.

"We're not at all anti-union. A lot of union members will be working on this building, probably a majority," he said. "But we don't feel we should be telling our contractor what to do. If they want to have the union, fine."

A comparison chart provided by Western & Southern shows EMS workers here enjoy better pay and benefits than workers represented by the Service Employees International Union.

City officials - and voters - ought to ask themselves some basic questions: Is it the proper role of city government to force the private sector to unionize? To require a business to act as its agent in coercing a contractor to change its way of doing business?

Mayor Mark Mallory says he's working behind the scenes, trying to "hold out hope until we can get the parties to work it out," but he appears to hold some sympathy for Crowley's position: "The issue is whether or not workers employed by EMS feel like they can unionize. ... To the extent that they control the situation, Western & Southern needs to ensure that folks know they can."

Fair treatment for janitorial employees is a legitimate social issue. Workers have the right to organize; politicians and activists have the right to advocate for them. But the issue should not be used to hold a major, peripherally related project hostage, as Crowley seems to want: "We're saying to Western & Southern: 'You're coming to us asking us for this funding, but why should everybody benefit except the folks at the bottom of the ladder?'"

That's disingenuous. The city isn't really subsidizing the project. Its $3.75 million will be for sidewalks and other infrastructure around Queen City Square. The city will get back far more than it "gives," anyway. Workers, union and non-union, will benefit.

A report last week by a University of Cincinnati economics group, commissioned by Western & Southern, pegged the building's potential economic impact at $1.66 billion a year. It will generate or retain 8,655 jobs worth $388 million a year, noted UC's Economic Center for Education and Research, and its construction alone would contribute $715 million to the local economy. After it is built, it will provide $7.7 million a year in tax revenues to the city and school district.

"It's a very big project, very important to the city," Mallory said. If that's so, then city leaders should act like it and stop engaging in political arm-twisting on behalf of unions. That's nonsense.


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