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County proposal on large public works would require union involvement

The Bernalillo County Commission is set to consider a new ordinance to require community workforce agreements for public works projects costing at least $5 million. The county had only three such projects that would have qualified in the past two fiscal years, including BernCo@Alvarado Square, a new headquarters project pictured here. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Unions could play a guaranteed role on the next major Bernalillo County construction project under proposed legislation going soon before the County Commission.

Supporters say the “Community Workforce Ordinance” could mean more local workers on job sites and ensure they have health benefits, while opponents dispute that.

But both sides agree that this is at least partly a philosophical debate about the value and necessity of unions.

Under the proposal, contractors selected for applicable county construction projects must execute a community workforce agreement, also known as a project labor agreement, that dictates a certain amount of union worker participation.

As written, the ordinance would apply only to county public works projects costing at least $5 million and employing workers in three or more crafts. That’s a fairly narrow category of county construction projects; had the ordinance been in place for the past two fiscal years, it would have applied to just three projects, according to information the county provided in response to Journal questions.

Commissioner Debbie O’Malley says she is backing the ordinance to ensure those helping to build large, county-funded projects have health care and retirement benefits.

“This is very difficult work. It’s very injury-prone; it’s very hard physically. If they get injured, it’s important for us as a community, especially using public funds, to see that these workers are provided insurance and a pension or some retirement … to help them through those tough times,” said O’Malley, who co-sponsored the bill with Commissioner Jim Collie.

Carla Kugler, president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors’ New Mexico chapter, said the ordinance is an unnecessarily complicated way to achieve benefits for the crews building big county projects. She said most of her association’s members already provide benefits to employees.

“If (the contractor’s) providing good, quality jobs, they should just be able to (staff a project) however they want to,” she said.

Opponents also have argued that the ordinance would give all major county projects to union shops, thus reducing competition and potentially driving up costs.

Crews work on the scaffolding at BernCo@Alvarado Square, a $65 million project in Downtown Albuquerque. Under a proposed ordinance, such projects in the future would require community workforce agreements. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

But county officials say the ordinance does not preclude non-union contractors from bidding on or winning county projects, or from using their existing personnel, referred to as “core” workers in the legislation.

It would, however, require nearly all workers on the job site to pay union dues while on the project. And the legislation includes a draft CWA between the county and the New Mexico Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 15 construction craft unions, that sets union worker participation levels. The draft says the contractor’s first five hires can be core workers, but that core workers cannot make up over 50% of the workforce on jobs with more than 10 people. The rest must come from a union hall, though there is an exception if there aren’t enough available.

O’Malley and Brian Condit, executive director for the trades council, stress that such details are subject to revision or negotiation based on the job.

The overarching intent, O’Malley said, is to provide union-level benefits to all working on large county projects.

As such, the contractor would have to make fringe benefit contributions to the union for job site workers – and that would include their core workers, except when the contractor is already providing those core workers with health insurance, vacation and some kind of retirement/pension benefit. For those workers, contributions are not required.

Kugler suggested that the county simply make benefits a requirement of bidding on these projects rather than go the CWA route, and requiring union participation and staffing breakdowns.

She also said the fact it would apply to only a handful of county projects does not make it more palatable, saying she believes it will stifle competition.

If the ordinance is approved, it should not change contractors’ labor costs. That’s because the state already has an established wage rate for public works projects.

However, that wage includes the cost of fringe benefits. So non-union workers without benefits might ordinarily get more money in their paychecks. If they worked on a CWA project, it could lessen their take-home pay while increasing their benefits.

Condit said he sees the CWA ordinance as a communitywide benefit, adding that if the government spends enough on its projects to include worker benefits, employees should have them and not require additional subsidy for medical care.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and seen very prominent businesses have workers end up in indigent care at UNM (hospital),” he said.

He also said the agreements can ensure more local worker participation on major county projects if the involved parties set worker preferences for those in Bernalillo County or New Mexico.

Kugler disagrees. Because only a fraction of the state’s construction workforce is already in unions, she argues that filling union slots on CWA job sites may require going out of state.

“Is it really the best thing, or is it really the best thing for the union?” she said. “In our opinion, it’s not necessarily the best thing for the community.”

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