On March 22, 2010, Councilman Bill Henry intends to submit a bill put forth a measure to the Baltimore City Council requiring any contractor doing business with the city to give preference to local UNION employees. Under the measure, local unions would be required to use their best efforts to recruit city residents into union apprenticeship programs and hiring halls. The measure was crafted by the Laborers International Union of North America and is being submitted at their request, according to the Baltimore Sun (”Union laborers would be first in line for city projects under new bill,” 3/8/10).
Across the US, the Construction industry has been hit harder than almost any other industry with a 27% unemployment rate. In Maryland, union labor accounts for only 12.6% of the private construction workforce. (Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, "Union Membership and Coverage Database from the Current Population Survey: Note," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 56, No. 2, January 2003, pp. 349-54.) The remaining 87.4% of the construction workforce would be eliminated from performing this work under the scheme of the yet to be seen legislation. According to news reports, Councilman Henry has indicated that his goal was simply to “get more Baltimoreans employed.” (”Union laborers would be first in line for city projects under new bill,” Baltimore Sun, 3/8/10). The Councilman’s motives aside, whenever the government intends to interfere in the marketplace, its methods must be scrutinized for their effects upon those they intend to affect.
Under the reported scheme in this instance, the goal of employing more Baltimore residents will likely be thwarted by the mere fact that local union companies simply do not have enough union laborers to provide for the labor needs of city-sponsored projects. Accordingly, after the available pool of local union labor would be exhausted, the unions would be forced to bring in labor form outside of the jurisdiction. At the same time, local non-union companies would be completely eliminated from the same project despite its vast pool of local laborers (most of whom are participating in non-union apprenticeship and training programs) whose only discriminating characteristic is their decision not to join a labor union.
There are reasons why Unions provide value to their members and to the projects they construct. Traditionally, labor unions have provided robust apprenticeship training and provided flexibility for employers to increase their labor pools as necessary with local hiring halls. However in the last 30 years, many non-union trade groups have developed their own robust training and apprenticeship programs and provide staffing services which rival those provided by the unions. Accordingly, the implied benefits being proposed currently (local firms hiring and training local labor) can be achieved by a mix of union and non-union labor on projects without the need to restrict competition and opportunities for local non-union businesses. These goals can be met though fair and balanced incentives for businesses to hire and train local people for local projects.
I can see no reason why Baltimore or any other branch of Government would endeavor to limit the employment opportunities for its unemployed constituents based upon their ability or desire to join a labor union. The taxes paid by the citizens of those jurisdictions (including those resident laborers affected by this legislation) should not be used to artificially exclude hardworking people from participating in the coming economic recovery.
It will be interesting to see how Baltimore chooses to proceed in this defining moment.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the Author only and are not the opinions of Harrison Law Group, its partners, or its employees.