Local labor unions say Honolulu could increase the hiring of local workers and reduce delays caused by labor disputes with a new City Council measure, but the proposal is getting pushback from a group representing nonunion shops.

Bill 37 would lay the foundation for a community workforce agreement, also called a project labor agreement or PLA. According to the Hawaii Construction Alliance, such a deal could help rein in the use of low bid out-of-state and unscrupulous contractors on Honolulu public works projects worth more than $250,000.

If passed, the City and County of Honolulu would be the first local government in the state to implement a PLA to cover such a sweeping array of public projects. 

Let’s preserve the jobs for local people and make sure everything is being done above board,” said Nathaniel Kinney, the alliance’s director. 

Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan has introduced a measure to ensure union labor on major projects. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

The specifics of the deal would be negotiated with the mayor, according to the bill. The eventual agreement could require nonunion companies to hire union workers and may require nonunion employees to pay union dues, Kinney said, but it wouldn’t necessarily require them to actually join the union.

Jonathan Young, president of Hawaii’s chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, says these kinds of deals discriminate against nonunion shops.

“You’re basically trying to shut out anyone who’s not a union from doing any work,” said Young, whose trade association promotes free enterprise in contracting. “That’s going to be a lawsuit. It will lose.”

Under the bill introduced this month by Councilman Joey Manahan, the city would negotiate a contract with the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council, the Hawaii Construction Alliance and those groups’ affiliated labor unions.

That collective bargaining agreement would cover all public works contracts over the $250,000 threshold. To avoid project delays, the bill would require that conflicts be resolved through arbitration and that unions refrain from strikes, picketing and other labor actions.

To promote local hiring, there would a goal that 80% of project hours be completed by local workers.

It’s about local jobs for local people,” Kinney said. “That is our concern first and foremost.”

The agreement would also require incorporation of Helmets to Hardhats, a nonprofit program that connects military members to training and work opportunities in construction.

Manahan’s bill was referred to the Council Budget Committee, which he chairs.

Project labor agreements have been used in the public and private sectors for decades to establish standards for construction work.

Advocates argue they reduce costly delays caused by labor disputes or a lack of skilled workers. Hawaii used PLAs in recent years on the Princess Victoria Kamamalu state office building, the airport’s Mauka Concourse and the University of Hawaii’s pharmacy college in Hilo.

Former Mayor Mufi Hannemann also signed one for the rail project in 2009 to keep the project “on budget and on schedule,” the Honolulu Advertiser reported at the time. Those goals didn’t pan out for reasons unrelated to the PLA, Kinney said.

In fact, when two unions on the rail project got into a disagreement, Kinney said, “they went on the side and talked it out while the project continued, and you didn’t see any sort of slowdown.” 

The city’s legislation does not detail how it would impact nonunion contractors. Manahan said the goal of the legislation is to “make sure that we use union labor.”

“That’s to ensure the quality of the work and the guarantee of the work and ensures that, apart from quality, that it’s done in a timely manner,” he said.

Asked if nonunion contractors would still be allowed to bid on jobs, Manahan said, “I guess we’re going to have that discussion.”

He referred specific questions about his bill to “the advocates who brought the legislation to me” — the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council and the Hawaii Construction Alliance.

Kinney said nonunion companies would still be able to bid on contracts.

The lowest qualifying bid is still the winning bid,” he said. 

Machines work along McCully Street.
Workers and heavy machinery at a repaving project on McCully Street. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s possible that nonunion employees would be required to pay dues to the unions, as is the case on the rail project, Kinney said. Workers benefit from union representation if a dispute arises, he said, and nonunion companies can access the union’s hiring hall of skilled workers.

“You’re basically renting the union’s bench,” he said.

ABC’s Young laughed at the suggestion that nonunion companies don’t have their own quality workers.

“They can blow all the smoke they want,” he said. 

The bill would block an estimated 4,500 nonunion contractors in Hawaii from “doing work that they have paid for through their taxes,” Young said.

The threshold of $250,000 is much too low, he said. The state uses PLAs for projects of $25 million or more, which is a more appropriate amount, Young said.       


He said he believes the unions are trying to collect more dues to contribute to the political campaigns of candidates that will benefit them.

“It’s going to restrict commerce and raise prices. Bottom line, it’s not a good bill,” Young said. 

Kinney suggested that organizations that oppose PLAs, which he declined to name, are pushing an agenda funded by wealthy antiunion interests.

“I call into question what their motives are,” he said.

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