Who says candidates running for public office all sound alike?
Certainly not when it comes to whether Albuquerque should adopt an ordinance that would impose union-friendly conditions on city-financed construction projects.
• Mayor Richard Berry is opposed to such an ordinance, saying it would raise the cost of public projects and hurt working families.
• Challenger Pete Dinelli is in favor of it, arguing it would ensure fair pay for work, quality control and worker safety.
• And challenger Paul Heh, who originally opposed the concept when he thought New Mexico was a right-to-work state, now says he supports it.
That’s the short version of where the three mayoral candidates stand six weeks before the Oct. 8 election on what are known as “project labor agreements.”
The controversial issue emerged publicly this week during the question-and-answer portion of a mayoral candidate forum sponsored by the NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association.
Roxanne Rivera-Wiest, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of New Mexico, used the opportunity to ask all three candidates whether they support such agreements for city projects. Her association is a strong opponent of the practice.
In essence, these agreements – sometimes referred to as “community workforce agreements” – require contractors bidding on big municipal projects to use union labor and generally abide by union working conditions. The agreements set the terms and conditions of employment that must be adhered to for the duration of a project.
Generally, the agreements contain language that calls for workers to be hired through union halls, though nonunion workers can join a union and pay union dues specifically for the duration of the project. The agreements also may prohibit strikes or lockouts.
In New Mexico, only 8 percent of the construction workforce is unionized, according to statistics compiled by the state building association.
The Albuquerque mayor’s race isn’t the only place where the pros and cons of project labor agreements have been debated in recent years.
Two months ago, South Carolina became the 17th state in the nation to ban state government entities from entering into these labor agreements for public projects.
In doing so, it joined Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia as states that have adopted similar measures in the past three years.
A “demand” for the end of project labor agreements even made it into the Republican Party platform in 2012.
Historically, these labor agreements have been around since the late 1930s, authorized by passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. On the federal level, they have been used to build the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, the Nevada Test Site and the Launch Operations Center at NASA’s Cape Canaveral, among many other projects.
Closer to home
Santa Fe recently went full circle with a community workforce agreement ordinance – from introduction to adoption to repeal, all in one year – without its provisions ever being applied to a single project.
In February 2012, the Santa Fe City Council voted unanimously to adopt such an ordinance, which required contractors bidding on city projects in excess of $500,000 to use union labor, among other provisions.
That led to an intense campaign by opponents of the ordinance – including the state building association and the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association – that persuaded the council to delay implementation until administrative procedures were in place.
Opponents argued that the ordinance would raise the cost of taxpayer-financed projects, impose unfair burdens on contractors and shrink a community’s pool of potential bidders.
Ultimately, after several unsuccessful attempts to amend the controversial law, the council voted, 5-3, to repeal the ordinance altogether last February without ever applying it to a construction project.
Dinelli: Good for workers
During the NAIOP forum, Dinelli told attendees the ordinance “hasn’t hurt the city of Santa Fe,” but he failed to mention the ordinance was repealed before it ever was implemented.
He said in an interview later that day that he believes the repeal was a mistake.
“Yes, I could support a project labor agreement for all major projects undertaken by the city (of Albuquerque),” he said.
Dinelli, a Democrat, said such an ordinance would blend well with his Energize ABQ economic development plan, which among other things calls for the investment of $1.5 billion into infrastructure improvements.
The former chief public safety officer, deputy city attorney and city councilor also cited the use of a project labor agreement by the University of New Mexico Board of Regents in 2004, when it went out to bid to build a $183 million wing for its Children’s Hospital.
That is believed to be the last time a project labor agreement has been used for a major construction project in Albuquerque, in part because of the controversy it generated at the time.
Dinelli said a project labor agreement “guarantees the quality of work and workmanship, and guarantees a fair wage to workers. It also will guarantee that workers won’t be taken advantage of. That’s my biggest reason to support.”
As for the popular arguments cited by opponents of these labor agreements, Dinelli said: “I think a lot of that is more nonsense than reality.”
Berry: Bad for city
Berry disagrees. At Monday’s forum, the Republican mayor labeled as “insane” the idea of forcing unionism on people “to be able to work in this town.”
In a later interview with the Journal , Berry said the adoption of a project labor agreement ordinance by the city would raise taxes by boosting the cost of public construction projects, make it more difficult for small businesses to compete and hurt working families.
If such an agreement became city law, Berry said, it would exclude between 60 percent and 70 percent of businesses that normally would bid on a city contract, unless they agreed to use union labor.
“Anytime you limit your competition, the prices are going to go up for our boss – the taxpayers,” he said. “Let people go out and compete. Let them go out and bid for jobs. If its union, great. If it’s nonunion, great.”
Heh: Changed stance
Heh, a former police sergeant who retired two years ago from the Albuquerque Police Department, has changed his position on such an ordinance in the past few days.
Originally, the Republican told the Journal that he was opposed to project labor agreements because he didn’t believe they could work in a right-to-work state, a position he reiterated at Monday’s mayoral forum.
When informed that New Mexico was not a right-to-work state, Heh dropped his opposition to such an ordinance.
“I guess I should have been informed better,” he said Wednesday. “My problem was that I really didn’t fully understand right to work.” Heh, who said he has been “a union guy all my life,” acknowledged that union labor can push up the cost of city-financed construction projects, but he said that shouldn’t be the only factor.
“You have to examine the bids and not just go with the low bid,” he said. “And you can’t discount unions because they might be a little higher.”