Editorial: Veto of Everett union ordinance offers second chance

Mayor Franklin is correct to seek further discussion regarding an ordinance that will effect union workers and residents.

Cassie Franklin

Cassie Franklin

By The Herald Editorial Board

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin’s veto Wednesday night of a city council-led ordinance regarding union labor for city projects shouldn’t be taken as a rejection of the basics of the proposal or of labor unions and members in general.

Franklin said as much, announcing the veto of the council’s ordinance that sought to require the city enter into public labor agreements (PLAs) for all city projects of $5 million or more.

“This is not a no; it’s a request to get this important piece of legislation right,” Franklin said in overturning the ordinance that passed 4-3 at the Dec. 7 council meeting.

In fact it was Franklin who, as mayor in 2019, brought the city’s current resolution regarding public labor agreements, also known as community workforce agreements, before the council for its approval, which guarantee use of union labor for public works and other construction projects and can head off strikes, lock-outs and other delays while ensuring fair pay, health and safety of workers and meet equity goals.

Public labor agreements have a long history in the construction of large public works; the U.S. government sets a threshold of $35 million for such projects. But they are not an especially common tool at the municipal level and most include review by staff and exceptions for urgency, cost-efficiency and other concerns.

What the council’s ordinance sought was to increase the use of PLAs by mandating them for all city projects of $5 million or more, removing the resolution’s case-by-case language that allowed staff review of projects to determine if a PLA was “in the public interest.”

Franklin made no comment during the council’s Dec. 7 deliberations, but city staff, including its public works director and the city attorney warned that they needed more time to review the ordinance and prepare a “template” for labor agreements if the ordinance were to be adopted.

Following the vote, Franklin echoed her staff’s concerns, outlined in a veto message that objected to the removal of staff review of such agreements as to whether they meet the public’s interest, potential legal risks, concerns about the ordinance’s impact on the city budget and on utility rates for residents and the potential to leave out woman- and minority-owned businesses from the bidding process if they failed to meet certain requirements.

The above concerns seem reason enough to go back and review the ordinance, its provisions and its potential consequences before committing the city to such ironclad agreements, especially as the city embarks on a raft of infrastructure, transportation and other projects, most of which will exceed that $5 million threshold.

The council’s own path to adoption of the ordinance also revealed the need for more thought and discussion. Minutes prior to the ordinance’s passage, council members amended provisions that would have lowered the threshold to $3 million as of 2025, and agreed to exempt four pending projects that are expected to go to bid in the first half of next year.

Even as the existing resolution remains in effect, Franklin has asked for a task force that would include a city staff representative and two members of the council as co-chairs to discuss a prospective ordinance. Among the best candidates for that panel would be either of the original ordinances’ main proponents — council members Liz Vogeli or Mary Fosse — and council member Ben Zarlingo, who offered an alternative ordinance last week but withdrew it following the council vote. As well Franklin asked for consideration of a resolution regarding union apprenticeships that could encourage the creation of training opportunities in the construction trades as part of city projects.

Support for a commitment to union labor by the city — built and sustained by those workers through much of Everett’s history — will surprise no one. But that commitment has to include the city’s responsibility to look out for all interests, particularly of its residents and taxpayers. The council and city staff, including the mayor, can also use the opportunity of reconsideration of a new ordinance to smooth over some rough patches that recent council discussions have revealed between some city council members and staff.

Disagreements over policy and priorities are expected — and encouraged, when they help reach compromise and good policy — but a balance has to be struck that respects warnings to slow the legislative process to allow for better information, without adding undue delay to legislation.

A process that reconsiders the public labor agreement ordinance for consideration later next year seems to offer the best potential for such a balance.

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