School contract debated

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Ironton City Schools recently approved a project labor agreement with the Tri-State Building and Trades Council that will govern the construction of the city’s new school buildings.

While much of the 30-plus page contract is mundane (“The project coordinator shall have the prerogative to designate toolrooms …” and “There will not be any organized coffee breaks …”) some key points are being debated as either helpful or hindering in keeping costs down and getting new schools built on time and under budget.

Those who approve of the plan say the PLA will insure quality local workmanship. Others fear it will drive up costs and leave local, non-union contractors — many of the same people who are being asked to pay for the new schools — out in the cold.

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Positives and negatives

Superintendent Dean Nance emphasized Ironton is the first school district in Ohio that has been allowed to have a project labor agreement, though other districts wanted one. Bill Nenni, owner of local contracting firm Kellico Inc., is one of several contractors that have questioned the plan and said just because it sets a precedent doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing.

“One of the good things is that there will be no work stoppage or strikes or things like that,” Nance said.

On July 26, Gov. Ted Strickland added his signature to a plan that allows a project labor agreement.

While Ironton may be an oddity as far as schools are concerned, it is not the only construction project to have one. The Scioto County Jail and some of the more recent projects at Marshall University also had a PLA in place.

“And they all came in under budget and people were thrilled with the work,” Nance said.

Nance said the majority of construction work on schools in this area was performed by union shops even in the absence of an agreement.

“What it says is that whoever gets the contract has to abide by these rules,” Nance said.

But Nenni and others remain unconvinced.

“I still do not see one way in which the PLA helps us,” he said.

Steve Burton, with Tri-State Building and Trades Council, was unable to be reached for comment.

Who gets hired?

While the PLA allows the district to hire the best and lowest bidders, it requires all successful bidders to abide by all the terms contained in the plan.

It also states that while non-union and union workers may be hired, “all employees hired by the employer, as a condition of employment, become and remain members in good standing in the union on the eighth day of employment.”

School board member Kathy Kratzenberg said this is one aspect of the contract that bothered her.

“I have a problem with the clause that says non-union people who bid on the project have to be part of a union within eight days,” Kratzenberg said. “I think people who would be interested in bidding may be discouraged by some of the wording.”

This is a sentiment shared by Nenni. He agreed that such contract would tend to favor union firms. There are no union shops he knows of Ironton and few, if any, in Lawrence County.

“This does nothing to keep the projects local. In fact I think it will do just the opposite,” Nenni said.

Nenni said an Ohio Department of Legislative Services report shows that, generally speaking, the mix of union versus non-union trades is roughly 30 percent union and 70 percent non-union.

Favoring the unions, the PLA would essentially exclude the 70 percent tradesmen that are non-union, thus requiring the district to draw from a larger geographic pool to find enough qualified workers for the project.

“If they wanted to use local people they could’ve done that without signing a union agreement,” Nenni said.

The contract also requires “all contractors and sub-contractors to employ at least 80 percent of all employees within the local area.”

Nance said this stipulation is meant to prevent an out-of-town contractor from bringing in labor from, say, Cleveland or Cincinnati to build Ironton schools.

“The big thing for me is to keep work local,” Nance said. “We want to put money back in the pockets of the people in the community.”

Kratzenberg said she also has a problem with the definition of “local labor.” She said most people in Ironton would consider local to be Ironton while the definition of local in the PLA includes a larger area.

“My big concern is that all of my employees will pay that property tax to build the new schools. Everyone of my employees pays it. But they are not going to be able to participate in building the project because of this agreement,” Nenni said.

The prevailing wage

The agreement also states “all employees covered under this agreement shall be properly classified and paid the hourly wage rate in effect for such classification as contained in their local collective bargaining agreement…”

Nance said while contractors will be required to pay the prevailing wage, this was actually the case with other districts in the area as well.

He said they also used union labor and workers were paid the prevailing wage without any escalating or exorbitant costs detractors fear.

Nenni contended, however, that the agreement and the clause regarding the prevailing wage may drive up costs and may limit competition and skilled craftsmen that will be allowed to compete for those dollars.

The Ironton contractor said he believes this clause is problematic because, he suspects, schools officials may not have fully investigated it and its effect on the building project before approving the PLA.

He wondered if there was a prevailing wage scale in existence before the agreement was adopted and if there was one, had anyone local actually seen it.

“If they wanted a prevailing wage clause, they could have had that without a union agreement,” Nenni said.