July 26, 2014

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Work deal repealed in Lorain

LORAIN — A local hiring requirement approved Thursday has divided union and nonunion workers, City Council members and Mayor Chase Ritenauer.

The new ordinance stipulates 25 percent of workers on city projects of $2 million or more be qualified Lorain or Lorain County residents and 9 percent of them must be minorities. The ordinance is a diluted version of a Project Labor Agreement that required 75 percent of workers be locals with 9 percent minorities.

The 2011 agreement also stipulated workers unionize during projects. Union leaders said it ensured efficiency, quality and safety, while nonunion companies said it was unfair to make their workers pay dues for benefits they wouldn’t receive since most projects last a few months.

Councilmen Dennis Flores, D-2nd Ward; Tim Howard, D-3rd Ward; Bret Schuster, D-4th Ward; Eddie Edwards, D-5th Ward; Myroslaw “Mickey” Silecky, D-7th Ward; Frank DeTillio, D-8th Ward; and at-large members Dan Given and Anne Molnar voted yes. Councilmen Brian Gates, D-1st Ward, and Richard Lucente, D-6th Ward, voted no.

At-large Councilman Tony Richardson abstained to protest not being allowed to propose a compromise measure in which 33 percent of workers on projects of $1 million or more be local with 9 percent minorities. Richardson said after the meeting that a “fact-based, research approach” is needed to meet requirements.

Gates proposed changing the requirement to 50 percent local hires — 9 percent minorities — on projects of $1 million or more. The proposal was defeated with DeTillio voting yes along with Gates, Lucente and Richardson.

Approval came after three rancorous meetings this week — Gates blocked a Monday vote and Richardson blocked a Wednesday vote — in which about 200 union and nonunion workers packed the normally sparsely attended meetings. Several police officers were on hand to discourage fights.

Ritenauer, who inherited the agreement when he took office in January 2012, contended it overreached because of the specialized nature of some of the construction jobs. He said the hiring percentage and the union stipulation were discouraging union and nonunion companies from project bidding, driving up taxpayer costs. The change comes with a slew of road improvement projects about to begin this spring, including $17.7 million in locally funded work.

Ritenauer said this week that complete hiring records weren’t available. However, he said a three-month period between September and December in which nearly 35 percent of project workers were county residents, 18 percent were Lorain residents and 11 percent were minorities, was an accurate snapshot. Nonetheless, Gates contended the change was an overreaction prematurely forced through by Ritenauer, who he blamed for not withholding payments from companies that didn’t meet requirements.

“Contractors knew they could ignore them at will because they knew there was no desire to have them enforced. This was an inevitable problem,” Gates said. “If we’re not willing to make it a priority to hire our own residents, why would we expect anyone else to hire them?”

Ritenauer responded that Gates was being unrealistic.

“What you’re saying to me is keep the 75 percent, dissuade union and nonunion shops from participating, all while driving up the cost for our taxpayers for public works projects,” Ritenauer said.

Joe Thayer, Lorain County AFL-CIO president, this week accused Ritenauer of blindsiding and scapegoating local unions. After the vote, Thayer praised Gates, Lucente and Richardson and said he would try to work with Ritenauer.

Schuster, who sponsored the original agreement, also urged reconciliation. He said millions of dollars are being invested in Lorain projects and said more money needs to stay in Lorain.

“We can’t worry about yesterday. We’ve got to take care of tomorrow,” Schuster said. “Make this work. The other one wasn’t.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.