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Two Harbors Council proposes scrapping labor agreements

The Two Harbors City Council has taken the first step in changing wage rates, hour requirements and project labor agreements for upcoming construction projects.

The Council approved the first reading of the ordinance with of vote of 6-1 during a special meeting about the upcoming streets and alley repair project Monday Jan. 29.

The ordinance would repeal wage and hour requirements for city projects. For city construction projects estimated at $150,000 or more, the ordinance would also change the requirement for 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.

Opponents of PLAs say scrapping them can help save labor costs, while proponents say they are necessary for ensuring workers are treated and paid fairly.

Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, learned about the ordinance when the News-Chronicle contacted him last week.

"That's a complete shock to me," Olson said.

Later in the week, after contacting Mayor Chris Swanson, Olson said he planned to meet with Swanson on Friday, Feb. 9, to discuss the issue.

"Why would you want to slash costs on the backs of local workers?" Olson said, adding that there are 409 union members in Two Harbors.

Olson said he's "cautiously optimistic" going forward, but wants to show a strong message to the Council.

"I'm gearing up to have a very large union presence at these meeting because of what (Swanson's) intent is," Olson said.

A second reading of the ordinance is expected at the Council meeting Monday, Feb. 12. If that reading is approved by the Council, the ordinance will be be read a third time at the following Council meeting. If that is approved as well, it will take 30 days for the ordinance to take effect.

Swanson did not respond to requests for comment.

Discussion during the Council meeting last week centered around saving costs associated with a $1.6 million streets and alleys project slated for 2018. Nearly half of the projects cost would be assessed to property owners along the eight streets and alleys planned for repair.

City-hired engineer Joe Rhein of Bolton and Menk said that the current PLA requires union construction workers come from the Duluth Labor Temple pool and loosening that may allow for cheaper bids to come in.

"So what the Council is considering is to relax that restriction so that we can take it off of these contracts so the contractors can have a larger labor supply to work with, and hopefully that will reduce the project cost, which in turn would reduce all of the assessments to the property owners," Rhein said.

Olson said because the construction industry is plagued with off-the-book payments, he fears workers would be mistreated without the existing PLA.

Councilor Robin Glaser, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers, cast the only dissenting vote.

"I'm a card-carrying union member and I just felt like I need to support my brothers and sisters in union," Glaser told the News-Chronicle last week.

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