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Kevin Korenthal: Diversity or discrimination?

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Posted: February 21, 2009 11:08 p.m.
Updated: February 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
It would appear that Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, knows little about the reality of racial diversity in the union building trades.

Reich recently opined, "if construction jobs go mainly to white males who already dominate the construction trades, many people who need jobs the most - women, minorities and the poor and long-term unemployed - will be shut out."

What makes Reich's comments so bizarre is that they run counter to the modus operandi of the Democratic Party's single largest political contributor: Big Labor.

Unions, despite 100 years of opportunity to change their discriminatory ways, are still a powerful special interest that tends to employ less minority workers than are represented in the communities they serve.

In the city of Los Angeles, for instance, staff and elected officials have struggled to get the local building trades to prove they can make good on promises of racial diversity and local hiring in return for a union-only Project Labor Agreement that would encompass all public-works projects in the city.

You'd think that such a huge prize would drive the union to get the city the information it is requesting. The problem is the union simply can't produce the levels of minority participation the city is asking for.

And this is nothing new. When the city of Philadelphia approved a union-only Project Labor Agreement for its new convention center, it inserted language into the document that required a certain level of minority and women participation.

In the end, all but one of the 18 participating unions failed to prove it could meet the race and gender requirements set forth in the PLA.

Forty-six percent of the local population is black, and 55 percent of the total population is minority. The union-only PLA has ensured that non-union contractors, the contractors whose participation would greatly increase minority participation, have almost no incentive to bid on this project.

While the new convention center continues to be delayed as the unions stall for more time to come into compliance, the fact remains that they are not going to be able to meet these requirements on their own.

Nonetheless, late Friday afternoon, Feb. 6, the Obama administration quietly moved to require the use of union-only Project Labor Agreements on all federal or federally funded construction projects.

President Bush enacted Executive Order 13202 in 2001, which prohibited federal agencies and recipients of federal financial assistance from requiring wasteful and discriminatory union-only PLAs on federal and federally funded construction projects.

Obama's rescission of Bush's Executive Order will open the door for the federal government's mandating of discrimination on public works construction.

It is just this kind of thick-headed bumbling and reality-free policy making that is going to insure that the legislation intended to stimulate the economy instead will stimulate graft and cronyism.

Such political pandering is rife with risk for the new president and his prospects for holding Democratic majorities and his own job in subsequent elections.

Barack Obama, by all realistic accounts, must be able to point to an improving economy as we head into the mid-term elections in 2010.
If he cannot, Americans might get it into their heads that perhaps one-party rule, regardless of which party is doing the ruling, is just a bad idea.

Interestingly, if Robert Reich is serious about using "other than white" but nonetheless trained labor, the non-union building associations have been making serious progress in this area.

Merit Shop trade associations such as The Associated Builders & Contractors Inc. have struggled against herculean union political influence to grow non-union apprenticeship training across the country.

It is those non-union training programs - rather than the ones administered by unions - that are the training centers for minority-owned construction firms and their employees. But union-friendly laws and the legislators beholden to them via Big Labor's formidable political fund-raising machine continue to stand in the way of sustained growth for these "Merit Shop" training programs.

Obama's recent PLA decision will further erode the Merit Shop's ability to train employees for, and bid competitively on, federally funded construction projects.

Among other things, PLAs require non-union contractors that are interested in bidding on PLA projects to agree to recognize unions as the representatives of their employees on that job; use the union hiring hall to obtain workers; pay union wages and benefits; and obey the union's restrictive work rules, job classifications and arbitration procedures.

Since the majority of minority and women-owned businesses in the construction industry are non-union, this Executive Order goes farther than any single piece of legislation to insure that Mr. Reich's vision of opening doors to "women, minorities, and the poor" will never come to fruition.

Kevin D. Korenthal is the executive director of Associated Builders & Contractors, California Cooperation Committee and a Conservative political activist. He resides in the Los Angeles County suburb of Santa Clarita, CA with his wife and 3 children. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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