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Union, nonunion labor clash over O’Fallon police station, court house

It was standing room only at the June 11 O’Fallon City Council meeting.

It was standing room only at the June 11 O’Fallon City Council meeting.

By JESSICA MESZAROS

Discussion of utilizing a project labor agreement (PLA) in the construction of O’Fallon’s recently approved $28 million police station and court house caused an abundance of people, some clad in matching orange shirts, to appear at the City Council’s June 11 meeting.

A PLA is a multi-employer, multi-union, pre-hire agreement for construction on private and public work projects. PLAs ensure that all contractors and subcontractors on a project comply with the terms of a union-only agreement.

O’Fallon residents, business owners and IBEW Local 1 members along with state representatives and senators came foward to express their feelings for and against  an ordinance, sponsored by Councilmember Bob Howell (Ward 4), in favor of the PLA.

“I’m Local 1 for a reason,” O’Fallon resident David Farhat said. “I’ve lived here since 1991. My family is active in the community, and we chose to come out and support Prop. 1 and show our support for PLAs. PLAs encourage local involvement. Organized labor has supported you, now please support us.”

While the PLA is touted as a mechanism for easing the worries of individuals on the projects, the factors behind those agreements have elevated concern in some.

“Over 70 percent of Missouri’s workforce chooses to be nonunion,” Rep. Rob Vescovo (R-Distrcit 112), said. “PLAs are extortion. They are a legal form of extortion, but still extortion.”

As Michele Roberts-Bauer, president of Associated Builders and Contractors, Heart of America Chapter explained, nonunion workers participating on PLA projects would be required to pay into benefits packets that they then could not use because they “wouldn’t be part of the union.”

“We have great safety training, they (nonunion workers) are great professionals,” Roberts-Bauer said.  “I believe they all deserve equal access to bid on those projects.”

This is not a new issue. In 2014, a $4 million firehouse in the north side of the O’Fallon Fire Protection District was constructed with the use of a PLA.

“The firehouse is beautiful,” Bill Laughlin, O’Fallon Fire Board president, said in a phone interview. “Everything worked really smoothly. The project came in $360,000 under budget and around two weeks early.”

Howell said that on-time and under budget is not out of the ordinary.

“Never in the state of Missouri has a PLA come in over budget or over deadline for completion,” Howell said.

Howell had previously held a workshop session at the council’s May 14  meeting to explain the basic definition of a PLA and its possible benefits should the majority (it requires a four-sevenths or 57.14 percent) vote in favor of the agreement.

“Basically, when you go into a PLA, it provides high-quality and timely work,” Howell said.  “The work is timely, and there’s no striking or work stoppages, and it saves taxpayers money. It’s the biggest bang for the buck for taxpayers.”

Several nonunion organizations and other small businesses in the O’Fallon community agreed that a PLA would prevent them from bidding on the justice center.

“What a slanderous thing it is to build a justice system on the basis of discrimination,” Tim Branham, of Branham Electric, said.

In a long and controversial meeting, there was plenty of contention on both sides of the issue –  and even the councilmembers were divided.

“I’m going to vote with the majority of people in the community,” Councilmember Jeff Schwentker (Ward 4) said. “That’s why I was voted in. Whatever the majority of people want is what I want to support.”

But determining exactly what the majority wants will be the challenge. The council’s final vote on the on the use of a PLA is expected at the council’s meeting on June 25.

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