Two Wings: Newark’s Project Labor Agreement is how development should be done in urban NJ

Are you listening, Gov. Christie? – promoted by Rosi

Rice is Newark Councilman, for the City’s West Ward.

Last week, Newark Mayor Cory Booker signed legislation, sponsored by Council President Donald M. Payne, Jr. (soon to be Congressman Payne, Jr.) and I, that guarantees union participation in our city’s largest construction developments. This Project Labor Agreement (PLA) law, modeled after Jersey City’s PLA, is an affirmation of our city’s support for unions, still the best avenue for working class citizens to make it into the middle class. It did not come into existence, however, as easily as some would think, but the journey is illustrative of how local government, unions, the “grassroots,” and residents can still come together and formulate good public policy that will have a positive impact on urban job creation.

In 2010, Mayor Booker introduced a Project Labor Agreement ordinance for consideration by the Newark Municipal Council. There were problems from the start.  It was introduced in a municipal election year, the city council did not have any input in the final legislation, and the rumor was that the trade unions were not that enthused about the version either. The most visible problem was that it met with almost universal non-union construction worker/company opposition (even though they did not pay their workers prevailing wages nor offer pensions/healthcare). The non-union opposition was well organized, packing the City Hall Council chambers in greater numbers than the union supporters of the proposal by a 2-1 ratio. Their argument was simple, poignant and true: why give the unions so much when the trade union locals did not have a significant number of Newark residents in their organizations and, therefore, not a lot of African-American and Latino workers? They also proffered the argument that in these tough times, a job is a job, even if there are no fringe benefits (FTEs).  The City Council unanimously tabled the proposal without a comment or statement.  

In early 2012, I approached our Council President with what I thought might be a balanced approach, what I termed “two wings of the plane”: we give the unions the strongest PLA possible, matching or surpassing what Jersey City had done AND require them to create, pay for and maintain a significant pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship program for Newark residents. The two wings of the plane would help the proposed ordinance to fly right into passage and, hopefully, onto Mayor Booker’s desk for his signature. He agreed and we decided that it should come from the city council as opposed to the Administration to get maximum input from the legislative body that would ultimately have to pass it. We began meeting with trade unions in and around Essex County and with Newark’s own Laborers and LIUNA, Local 55, etc., locals with large minority memberships. We finally fashioned a draft ordinance for review by the Mayor, his Labor Advisor, and our Director of Economic Development. There were more meetings, more give and take, some angry dialogue about what was feasible and what would accomplish our mutual goals but not stymie the economic development that is coming to the city. We did it, together and I was proud to stand with Mayor Booker, my Council President Payne, Jr. and other colleagues and the trade union statewide leadership.

Essentially, Newark’s PLA requires union workers for tax-abated construction project worth $25 million or more and any public works project over $5 million. It provides for free training for Newark residents and while it is not a means to a plethora of new jobs in the short run, it will provide real training in the construction arts to interviewing skills to refresher courses in reading and math. The unions must adhere to a strict policy of no work stoppages, no picket lines and have to make sub-contracts available to minority- and women-owned businesses.

It is not a perfect piece of legislation and it won’t solve our unemployment problems in the city of Newark. Indeed, our city needs jobs in the thousands to replace the manufacturing jobs cities like Newark have been losing for over 40 years that pay a living wage to support a family and provide entry level positions for those that may not have the best education. These jobs en masse must come from the new green economy (jobs that cannot be outsourced) and/or luring large business distribution centers to our Port Newark area.  But it is a good example of what can be done for working class residents when local government (Administration AND City Council), residents, and unions stop pointing fingers and blaming each other for what is not being done and start collaborating, communicating and working on solutions that embrace the mutual uplift of society and not our individual interests. Are you listening, Governor Christie?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *