School board rejects union-only thuggery

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Unions furious with local politicians' reversal, vow retribution

In a vote that drew criticism from some Hazleton Area school directors, the school board rescinded the project labor agreement resolution it adopted in late September. The agreement would have required the district to hire a certain amount of construction work force from specific labor union halls.

School directors rescinded the agreement Thursday following a 5-4 majority-splitting vote. But officials made clear that the debate is far from over.

The issue surfaced immediately after school board President Elaine Curry called Thursday’s regular meeting to order. Director Brian Earley strayed from the meeting agenda and asked directors to repeal a PLA resolution adopted on Sept. 25.

Director Steve Hahn’s attempt to table Earley’s motion failed and the motion to repeal the PLA passed with Earley and directors Paulette Platukis, Sean Shamany, Jack Shema and Tony Bonomo voting “yes.”

Hahn, Curry and directors Carmella Yenkevich and Robert Childs voted “no.”

In Hazleton Area’s case, the agreement pertains to the Northeast Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council and its affiliated unions. It applies to all prevailing wage projects over $25,000.

The school board approved the agreement by a 7-1 vote last month, with Earley casting the lone “no” vote. Shemany was absent from last month’s meeting.

Although it was widely supported by local unions, the agreement sparked protest from George F. Hayden, of Hazleton’s Hayden Electric-Communications firm, and two Pennsylvania chapters of the Associated Buildings and Contractors, a national trade association of commercial contractors.

Hayden sparred with local union members at a recent school board committee meeting after voicing concerns for PLAs inflating project costs and restricting local, open shop employers from bidding on projects.

He made many of the same arguments at Thursday’s regular meeting.

School directors repealed the PLA agreement following a debate among school directors over language of the agreement and arguments made by Hayden and Mike Gibson, president of the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the Associated Buildings and Contractors.

At times, arguments got personal, with Hayden telling Hahn and Curry that the board disrespectfully voted on the PLA after hearing only supportive arguments from local union members.

Hahn, however, accused Hayden of making threatening comments to him at the conclusion of a recent school board meeting.

The issue created a rift between Curry and Earley as well, with Curry saying Earley’s surprise motion didn’t follow board protocol for discussing items at the committee level before voting on them at a regular meeting.

“I have no (PLA) proposal with me and I don’t like surprises,” she said. “This is not following proper protocol. Obviously, Mr. Hayden’s ads and comments on TV made some board members feel differently.”

While voicing her displeasure for the motion, Curry referred to anti-PLA advertisements that the Associated Builders and Contractors Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter published in the Standard-Speaker.

The ad showed a child looking up to a construction worker and listed “PLA facts” and a large-print statement that reads “My Daddy Can’t Work on Hazleton School District Buildings.”

The ad urges readers to contact the school district and request officials to remove the “discriminatory policy” from its books.

Earley argued that the PLA resolution applies to all prevailing wage projects valued at $25,000 or more.

Curry said she interpreted the resolution to pertain exclusively to capital projects, but Earley said the PLA language would pertain to “all” projects that meet the above criteria — including snow plowing.

Since Earley’s motion wasn’t listed on the meeting agenda, the board opened the meeting for public comment.

Hayden and Gibson sided with Earley.

Gibson said the resolution would adversely impact a dozen Hazleton firms, adding that the PLA is not the way to fulfill an apparent attempt by the board to ensure high quality craftsmanship on construction projects.

He also told directors that officials from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association do not support PLAs, with reasons backed up in studies such as those conducted by Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University.

He argued that the PLA would prohibit taxpayers who contribute to the district from working on its projects.

Hayden hammered the board for allegedly not giving him an opportunity to talk about the PLA leading up to the September vote.

“Talk of disrespect — disrespect is the opportunity we had to talk of the PLA and how it affects us directly,” he said.

Curry cut him off, telling Hayden that the board gave him an opportunity to talk about the PLA at a committee meeting held earlier this month.

Hayden said he chose not to speak because the committee didn’t have a quorum.

Curry, however, told him he didn’t speak because union members were present at the time.

“Why, of 501 Pennsylvania school district, is there only six to eight school districts with signed PLAs?” Hayden asked. “Eighty-five percent of local employees in the region are non-union. Many are active in the community and donated to the school district.”

Hayden argued that the board has other avenues, such as requiring firms to submit a performance bond, available for ensuring quality building projects.

Childs, however, said the performance bond only guarantees a project through the construction phases — which differs from a warranty.

Hayden has often argued that a PLA limits open-shop firms from bidding on projects, prompting Hahn to ask him to consider union employees who would be “kept on the bench” should a non-union firm secure a contract.

Curry cut the debate short by asking the board to either consider moving the discussion to a committee meeting or to vote Thursday night.

Earley called for the vote, with his motion eventually passing.

“I think we’re lowering our standards,” she said after the vote. “I’m not changing my mind (on the issue).”

Childs said after the meeting that the debate wasn’t about the type of firm that lands a contract, but centers on ensuring the district gets top-quality work on its construction projects.

“The thing that I think everybody is anxious to do, no matter which side they’re on, is to make sure we get quality work when things get built — and quality work done the first time,” he said.

Childs asked to meet next month with the district’s construction attorney and parties on both sides of the PLA. The meeting should generate a solution that will end the ongoing labor debate, Curry added.


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