Baker pressed on Holyoke Soldiers’ Home labor agreement

Union official, minority contractor debate merits of bill

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER is eager to sign a bill on his desk providing $400 million for the construction of a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, but first he has to make a decision on a controversial project labor agreement contained in the legislation.

A project labor agreement requires the contractor chosen to build the home to use workers supplied by various trade unions and to abide by wage and benefit provisions in return for a no-strike clause.

On The Codcast, one of the state’s top union officials and one of its leading non-union, or open shop, contractors staked out different stances on the project labor agreement. Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, said he hopes Baker signs the bill as approved by the Legislature, while John Cruz, the owner of a third-generation minority construction firm, said he hopes the governor deletes the project labor agreement.

The arcane provision has prompted an intense debate on Beacon Hill about competition and whether requiring a project labor agreement drives up costs and discourages minority participation. Nevertheless, the Holyoke bill passed with overwhelming support. 

Cruz said requiring his company to use workers supplied by the unions is wrong, and indicated he wouldn’t submit a bid on the project if the project labor agreement requirement is retained. He said 95 percent of the state’s minority-owned contractors are open shop businesses and most of them are unlikely to bid on the project. 

“This, to me, is a form of discrimination,” he said. “It says that you can’t get the treatment a union contractor or member can get. It’s that simple.” 

But Callahan said the project labor agreement is not discriminatory. He said any contractor – union or nonunion — can bid on the project. But he acknowledged that unions would supply most of the workforce and that the contractor would be required to abide by the pay and work conditions laid out in the project labor agreement. 

“Any contractor, union or nonunion, who bids work on this contract simply has to operate under the terms and conditions set for the workforce,” Callahan said. 

Callahan said the workers supplied by the building trade unions are well trained and come from diverse backgrounds. He ticked off a series of construction projects with project labor agreements that met or exceeded minority participation goals, including UMass Boston, the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, and the Wynn Resorts casino in Everett. 

“We train 93 percent of all female apprentices in the state of Massachusetts and 86 percent of all people of color in registered apprenticeship programs. We’re doing the job,” he said. “We’re very proud of the workforce we provide.”  

The legislation calls for the creation of an access, inclusion, and diversity committee to promote and monitor minority participation on the Holyoke project.

Cruz said the committee is needed because minority participation is hard to achieve with a project labor agreement. “When it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. That’s why it’s in there,” he said of the committee.

During the debate over the project labor agreement, opponents, including Cruz, have pointed to Polar Park in Worcester and its failure to achieve minority hiring goals. But Callahan said Polar Park was not built with a project labor agreement and minority hiring goals were not achieved because open shop contractors working on the project failed to reach their goals. “That had nothing to do with project labor agreements,” he said.

Callahan said there have been no project labor agreements on public sector construction projects during the Baker administration. He said the governor agreed to one for the expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, but that project never moved forward. Baker’s original bill seeking funding to rebuild the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home did not include a project labor agreement.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“I can’t read the governor’s mind on this. I hope he will sign it,” said Callahan. 

Cruz is also unsure what the governor will do. “I would hope he is opposed to it. I believe he is. His support has been for open shop,” Cruz said.