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In Minn., opponents prevail over union wages in county projects

By   /   March 8, 2013  /   No Comments

By Tom Steward | Watchdog.org Minnesota Bureau

ANOKA, Minn. — Anoka County may be 300 miles from Madison, and the politicians may not have fled the state to avoid a decisive union vote, but this blue-collar Twin Cities suburb now faces its own “Scott Walker moment.”

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KORDIAK

In a surprise, some would say stealth, vote added to the agenda the previous day, the county board recently repealed by a 4-2 margin one of organized labor’s cornerstones—the prevailing wage standard for county construction projects.

“I don’t think there were any laws broken or rules of county protocol broken, but it was simply kind of drone-like and without prior consideration,” Commissioner Jim Kordiak, who authored the original prevailing wage rule 24 years ago, said of the Feb. 12 vote. “All the prevailing wage suggested is that we ensure our projects paid our contractors within that wage range.  It worked very well for many years.”

The prevailing wage rule covered county-funded construction projects in excess of $10,000.  Union supporters say the policy ensured quality construction work for public projects and fair wages for workers, while critics claim the policy significantly increased labor costs borne by taxpayers.

“In the private marketplace nobody’s asking for prevailing wage. So why should the public marketplace with public tax dollars at a minimum, why would we want to add another 30 percent on a project in terms of labor?” said Commissioner Matt Look, who led the successful effort to eliminate the rule.

Look and other opponents say the cost of the paperwork to ensure contractors’ compliance with prevailing wage provisions, combined with higher labor costs, made it difficult for smaller contractors to offer competitive bids on county projects—until now.

“If you go by national averages, union representation is maybe 11 to 13 percent,” Look said, “and I represent 100 percent of my constituents.”

Labor leaders responded, urging members to call the cell phone numbers of the four commissioners who supported repeal on the Facebook page of Teamsters Joint Council 32, even though the county has no trucking contracts with companies using Teamsters.

“Thank you to all of you that have called this anti-Union, anti-worker Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look.  The number we’ve provided is his cellular number, so feel free to also text him if you so choose.  Just remember to be direct but professional and please don’t stoop to his level and use threats,” reads a Teamsters Facebook message.

Look dueled back on Facebook, insisting accusations he called union workers “lazy” are “totally bogus.”  On his Facebook page, Look provided Teamsters official Ed Reynoso’s phone number and more. “Give him a call.  Be sure to voice your opinion on prevailing wage and his California style thuggery bully style tactics that are now welcome in MN.”

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PUNCHING IN: Between seven and 12 of Minnesota’s 87 counties have rules governing prevailing wages, insiders say. (Photo: AP Images)

While the Minnesota Labor Department does not track the number of counties with a prevailing wage rule, insiders put the number at between seven and 12 of the state’s 87 counties. Anoka County’s decision to drop prevailing wage rules pertains only to county-funded construction projects, not those involving state and federal funding.

Just the same, the commissioner who put prevailing wage rules on Anoka County’s books more than two decades ago detects a broader trend at work.

“There is a push back in terms of prevailing wage and union service in this country. Look at Wisconsin and many more examples. It’s part of a national conservative direction this country has been tipping toward,” Kordiak said. “I won’t tell you it’s wrong or fatal, but it’s certainly difficult to watch unfold.”

Contact Tom Steward at tom@watchdogminnesota.org.

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Tom Steward covers government waste, spending and policy issues in his home state of Minnesota. Also a documentary filmmaker and in-depth broadcast journalist, Tom's work has appeared on NPR, Animal Planet, WCCO-TV, WGBH-TV, PBS, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, KSTP-TV, CBC, among other outlets. Highlights include the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Peabody Award, the first footage in the wild of the endangered Sumatran tiger and rhino and countless individuals who shared their stories, big and small. Steward served as a communications strategist in the U.S. Senate before returning to reporting on issues and people often overlooked by other media.

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