Despite threats of legal action from non-union groups, the Worcester City Council has voted 9-1 to enact a new Responsible Employer Ordinance that will require contractors on municipal projects to maintain apprenticeship programs.
The morning of the vote, the Utility Contractors Association of New England faxed letters to City Council members, threatening lawsuits if the ordinance was passed. The move only swayed one member, Councilor-at-Large Konstantina Lukes, who voted against the ordinance fearing the city would have to pay large legal fees.
Earlier in the week, a non-union construction trade group, the Merit Construction Alliance, also threatened legal action. City Councilor Frederick C. Rushton rebuffed the threats saying he “was confident the proposed REO would stand up in court and that the council should not let threats of legal action influence its deliberations.”
Quincy, MA has a similar ordinance and nonunion groups there have tied up the matter in court in order to discourage any other town from following suit:
City Manager Michael V. O’Brien had called on the council to table the measure until a court case in Quincy, where the Merit Construction Alliance recently won an injunction against a similar apprenticeship provision, is settled.
“Both UCANE and Merit Alliance have been extremely candid that they intend to take the city to court if this ordinance as drafted is adopted,” the city manager said. “It is clear this will ultimately be decided by the courts.”
The ordinance is supported by unions because it demands that contractors on municipal projects play by the rules, treat their workers fairly and ensure a quality product, not just in the present but in the future. The apprenticeship measure gives residents the ability to begin a rewarding career, not simply be used as temp workers on a one-off project. Non-union companies are against the measure because they believe it will disqualify them from bidding on projects due to their typically less robust apprenticeship efforts. For example, a new study has revealed that contractors associated with the staunchly anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) trained just 19,000 apprentices between the years 2002 and 2009, while joint labor-management apprenticeship training committees (JATCs) associated with construction unions have trained over 350,000 in the same time period.
Non-union contractors have claimed their experience is sufficient and that the apprenticeship requirement is above and beyond what’s needed:
In their zeal to allegedly protect workers and taxpayers, the councilors are ignoring an important provision requiring all bidders maintain a union-based model of worker training as a condition of bidding. This provision is unfair because it discriminates against responsible, qualified open-shop contractors like us, as well as our employees and the local vendors we use.
We run Worcester-based businesses with a combined 139 years of experience in construction. We employ many Worcester residents and have earned stellar reputations for quality work and unblemished employee records. Left alone, this singular apprentice-training requirement would immediately disqualify us from bidding on city projects.
In response, Susan Mailman, president of Coghlin Electrical Contractors and Network Services Inc., argued that the issue is one of education and building careers and that vilifying unions does not make sense in this case.
Our state is a leader in education, across all sectors. This leadership status also applies to apprenticeship training programs — we should be proud of that and promote it. As a contractor, it is rewarding to know that the technical high schools throughout our region have waiting lists.
Mailman also suggests that there enough non-union apprentice training programs that this should be a non-issue. The problem is that the non-union programs often act as “fronts” for compliance with laws and do not actually graduate very many apprentices (per the stat above):
There are 325 sponsored apprenticeship programs in Massachusetts — 300 are nonunion programs and 25 are union programs. Clearly the system does not exclude nonunion companies from having their training programs certified. State programs are not only construction trade programs — carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. — but also include apprenticeships for police, fire, correction officers and dispensing opticians.
In Central Massachusetts, there are 345 registered apprentices living in the 38 towns defined as the Central Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board economic impact area. Of these 345 apprentices, 90 are affiliated with nonunion programs and 255 are affiliated with union programs. Currently, union programs graduate more apprentices than the nonunion programs.
Some local nonunion contractors have argued that they have been excluded from bidding projects in the city because they do not have state-sponsored apprenticeship training programs. The data proves otherwise. Many nonunion companies do have approved apprenticeship programs. Contractors not participating have chosen not to participate.
Non-union contractors who can submit lower bids because they are not willing to pay the cost of apprenticeship do a disservice to communities both by driving down wages and inhibiting a new generation of workers. In a state where people are on waiting lists to join apprenticeship programs, a city deciding to mandate them should not be a big deal. It’s common sense. It is a shame that contractors who refuse to help build their trade routinely attack the unions doing that very community service while simultaneously threatening lawsuits against towns trying to escape the race to the bottom.