Labor Unions Favored For City Construction Projects Under Proposed Bill

Jul 24, 2019

Local construction unions will get preference in large city projects under a bill making its way through Honolulu City Council.

Bill 37 proposes that no less than 80% of all project works—costing at least $250,000— must be carried out by local residents, in order to promote the city’s economy and infrastructure development.

Under the bill, Community Workforce Agreements, or CWA, would be made to solidify partnerships between the city and the labor unions of the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council and the Hawaii Construction Alliance.

Hawaii seems to be a very union friendly state. A January 2019 release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Hawaii has the highest overall amount of unions in the country.

The bill states that hiring union workers would allow “public works projects to proceed without labor disruptions, whether due to external labor factors or the frictions that can arise when a large number of contractors and their employees and subcontractors work in proximity to one another on a job site.” It further stresses that hiring local union workers would avoid any potential delays or interruptions of public services.

Supporters of the bill say that requiring the city to hire union workers for its projects would also ensure benefits such as healthcare and uniform safety measures.

However, members of non-union construction companies say that the bill instead would eliminate competition and opportunities for their workers. During the city council meeting on Wednesday, many workers from Helix Electric, a national electric engineering and construction company, testified against the bill.

One of these opponents of Bill 37 was Darren Rivera, an Ewa resident who has worked for Helix Electric for six years. He says approval of the bill would limit the work experiences of non-union workers like himself.

“If you approve this bill, it will take away the right to work on future projects that I would be in, and take away the right to work,” said Rivera. “I also feel like it would be very unfair for us to pay into union when we didn’t decide to pay into union when we didn’t decide to be in the union.”

Jonathan Young, President and CEO of Hawaii’s Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), says his non-union company represents roughly two thirds of the contractors in the state.

“Putting this bill forward to become a law discriminates against roughly 4,500 contractors,” said Young. “That represents one man companies. That represents hundred men companies. That represents hundreds of men’s companies. Discriminating against the majority of the contractors in the state of Hawaii is wrong.”

On the other hand, Nathaniel Kinney, the Director of the Hawaii Construction Alliance, says that the claims made by non-union workers about project labor agreements (PLA) and the bill are misguided.

“PLAs are not anti-competitive and do not shut out non-signatory projects,” Kinney said. “Under a CWA project, the lowest bid is still the winner, and non-signatory contractors are not required to sign a union collective borrowing agreement.”

Bill 37 was originally introduced to the Budget Committee by Chair Joey Manahan. Vice Chair Brandon Elefante and councilmember Ron Menor were the only two committee members who expressed reservations about the bill when voting Wednesday morning. With the rest of the committee’s approval as well, the bill will be up for discussion at the next full council meeting in August.