A measure approved by the Honolulu City Council last week that requires union labor for all city public works projects of $2 million or more awaits the signature of Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

On its surface, the rationale for Bill 37’s necessity — as stated by its backers, primarily organized labor groups, and the bill itself — is to make sure local jobs go to local people, to minimize the chance of labor strikes or shutdowns and to ensure that the hired workers are properly skilled now and in the future.

The bill suggests that military veterans will be aided through a Helmets to Hardhats program, Hawaii workers who moved out of state for better opportunities will be enticed to move back, opportunities in affordable housing and transient-oriented development will abound, and rising sea levels and the impact on Oahu coastlines will be addressed.

That’s quite the bill. But opponents of the legislation, primarily nonunion contractors, argue more compellingly that Bill 37 will hurt their own businesses because it amounts to a sweetheart deal for unions.

Honolulu City Council Member Joey Manahan. 8 feb 2017

Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan, February 2017. He is the author of Bill 37, which should be vetoed.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Bill 37 calls for setting up a community workforce agreement between unions and the city, more commonly known as a project labor agreement. In the view of the Hawaii Construction Alliance — it represents 15,000 organized workers including the politically active Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters — CWAs or PLAs “are simply the best way for Honolulu to ensure that local jobs go to local people.”

No wonder that the alliance’s executive director, Nathaniel Kinney, and Hawaii Laborers’ Union Local 368 testified in strong support of Bill 37 when Councilman Joey Manahan’s bill was first heard July 3. It was the only testimony submitted at the time.

The bill requires the city to negotiate public works contracts valued at $2 million or more with the alliance, the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council and affiliated labor unions. Conflicts would be resolved through binding arbitration.

Bill 37 has the support of a slew of unions including the state’s largest, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, and the Democratic Party of Hawaii Labor Caucus. But as the legislation wended its way through the council’s committee process, independent contractors caught wind of it and turned out in force in opposition.

This is not an anti-union editorial. We recognize and respect the rights of organized workers and their contributions to society.

Among those testifying in late July was Elvira Sutherland of Amethyst Builders who took issue with Kinney’s characterization that Bill 37 is the best way to keep local jobs in local hands.

“That statement is simply not true,” she wrote the council. “My company is a local business, operates in Honolulu and employs local people who will be no longer be getting these local jobs.”

Sutherland pointed to Hawaii’s low unemployment rate as evidence that both union and nonunion companies have had a hard time finding skilled workers.

Other general contractors and their advocates objected to Bill 37’s requirement that nonunion contractors that win bids hire union workers and possibly pay union dues.
 Honolulu is caught up in a national argument between forces like the AFL-CIO seeking to help building and construction trades  protect their workers through PLAs, and free-market, anti-union groups like the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation seeking to curb their influence.

At a time when union representation nationally continues to retract — the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions was 10.5% in 2018, or 14.7 million people — the fight over PLAs is understandably intense. The national union membership rate was 20.1% in 1983, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

Hawaii is one of only two states (New York is the other) with union membership over 20%.

This is not an anti-union editorial. We recognize and respect the rights of organized workers and their contributions to society.

But Bill 37 seems rushed and unnecessary. The fact that it includes language stating that the PLAs will ensure city projects are completed “on time and on budget” and that they have been used “successfully” by government entities like the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation is laughable.

And the fact that the council changed the public works contract’s dollar amount from $250,000 to $1 million and finally to $2 million gives the impression that the council may have recognized that the legislation seemed a union giveaway.

Caldwell should veto Bill 37. The fact that two members of the nine-member council voted against it and two others only reluctantly voted for it indicates there may not be the will to muster the six votes needed for an override.

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