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Two Harbors Council tables labor ordinance

Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, speaks out against an ordinance that would repeal wage rates, hour requirements and project labor agreements for upcoming construction projects during the Two Harbors City Council agenda meeting Feb. 12. (Jimmy Lovrien/News-Chronicle)

With a strong union presence in attendance, the Two Harbors City Council tabled a second reading of ordinance that would repeal wage rates, hour requirements and project labor agreements for upcoming construction projects.

The ordinance would repeal a section from the city code that ensures workers receive at least the prevailing wage for city projects costing more than $25,000 and another section requiring project labor agreements (PLAs) — a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with one or more labor unions that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a specific construction project — for construction projects estimated at $150,000 or more.

Mayor Chris Swanson argued that the PLA requirement be removed from the city code. He said he'd rather see it replaced with a policy where a committee decides on a case by case basis whether a project needs a PLA, similar to Lake County's policy.

As it stands now, however, the ordinance does not offer such a replacement.

"What's important to understand is that there is nothing stopping us from putting in place what the county has," Swanson said during Monday's meeting. "We can do that at any time — I'm open to that personally."

The lack of a replacement drew pushback from union members as well as Councilor Robin Glaser, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers, who cast the only dissenting vote on the first reading during a special meeting about the upcoming streets and alley repair project Jan. 29.

"What disappoints me the most tonight is that instead of rewriting the ordinance, we're repealing the ordinance. I think we have lost the opportunity to change the language by pushing the language through the way we have. This should have been a council discussion before we brought the second reading to the table...I guess I'm just really disappointed that we couldn't have a language change rather than a total repeal," Glaser said.

City Attorney Steve Overom clarified to the Council that changes to the proposed ordinance could only be made before it votes on the second reading. Once the second reading is approved, the Council would only have the option to approve or deny the ordinance following the third reading, but it can not make any language changes.

Councilor Erickson made a motion to table the second reading of the ordinance until a Tuesday, Feb. 20, special meeting where the Council will also discuss its priorities for the year. The decision to table was met with applause from union members in attendance.

Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, met with Mayor Chris Swanson earlier in the day Monday to discuss the issue. Olson said if the Council passes the existing ordinance, the union won't lobby for projects to come to Two Harbors.

"We're willing to talk with you as long as you want to talk, but as long as you vote this thing up, if you move this along, you're right — it's a done deal," Olson told the Council during Monday's meeting. "You can't amend it. You can't change the rules. You're throwing it out. My example is you're throwing out the baby with the bathwater."

Councilor Jerry Norberg challenged the council and union president to come to an agreement before Tuesday's meeting.

"Since there is time and we are slowing down the bus, I would hope that the mayor and our administrator and Craig, you guys get together and hammer this thing out," Norberg said. "Come with something we can all agree on."

The ordinance came about in an effort to lower costs for a proposed $1.7 million streets and alleys repair project slated for 2018. The city would cover half the cost while property owners along the eight streets and alleys would be assessed for the other half.

"We're doing everything we can to keep costs down," Swanson said.