Union members protest school district for using nonlocal labor

July 27, 2010

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Several local union workers gathered at Front Street South and Second Avenue Southeast to protest construction work at Issaquah High School on July 21-23.

Union workers with the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters gathered to protest the Issaquah School District’s decision to hire Cornerstone General Contractors, who they claim isn’t making sure local subcontractors are being used to construct the $84 million project.

“Cornerstone General Contractors hired these out-of-state subcontractors to work on the project, knowing that those workers were only living here temporarily and sending their monies as far away as Ohio,” union organizer Bruce Kelley said. “To me, that is an abomination for the people that live here and pay taxes in the city of Issaquah and have the same skills. It just doesn’t seem right.”

However, officials said they are following state law.

“We have legal obligation to provide work to the lowest qualified bidder and that was done here,” district spokeswoman Sara Niegowski said.

While district officials are required by law to award the bid to the lowest, responsible bidder in the state, union organizer Brad Moore said, they can define their values around what responsible means.

“There is more to price than just $1 million to $1.1 million,” Moore said. “If 60 percent of the workforce is out of state, then how much of that money is coming back or staying within the state? Is that really responsible?”

This isn’t the first time union officials have targeted the actions of the school district.

In the months immediately following the contract being awarded to Cornerstone — whose bid was the lowest at $61.5 million—other local union officials also claimed district officials didn’t abide by a 2007 law to ensure 15 percent of the labor for public construction projects would be used for apprenticeship programs.

Those programs are predominately overseen by union workers.

District officials said they did not violate the law, because voters approved the projects in 2006, prior to the mandate.

The Legislature “did recognize that there is a cost impact, because you are basically adding more trainees to any project and that translates to a cost in labor,” Director of Capital Projects Steve Crawford said then. “In recognition of that, they excluded any projects that were using voter approved funds approved prior to July 2007.”

Despite that, the Issaquah High School project has about 41 percent union workers, Crawford said.

“This isn’t a union or nonunion deal,” Moore said. “These are prevailing wage jobs, and union or nonunion we make about the same, so hiring local people to do the work would keep money in the local economy.”

While some subcontractors are from out of state, others are from cities within the state, Niegowski said. Subcontractors have been hired from Bremerton and Yakima.

“While we do want local people working, we want a robust economy throughout the Puget Sound region,” she said, adding workers travel throughout the region to jobs. “We certainly don’t want people in neighboring districts restricting what our local Issaquah workers can do in other areas.”

Issaquah isn’t the only target of union campaigns to keep dollars local, Moore said. The union has several other campaigns running against other districts in Snohomish, Thurston and Lewis counties and in a few areas in Eastern Washington.

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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