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Without much fanfare, a startling anti-business measure surfaced on the docket of the D.C. Council last week. The bill would essentially require union labor for any “government-assisted or government subsidized construction project” worth $200,000 or more.
Yet more startling than the measure itself was the politician who had co-authored it: Michael A. Brown. Demanding union staffing at taxpayer-funded construction projects is, at this point, classic Brown. As is raising questions about tax breaks for developers. As is stumping for a low-income property tax credit, and expanding food stamps, and so forth. He’s turned into a stalwart municipal populist, a reliable foil to business interests.
And the Chamber of Commerce can thank itself for putting him on the dais.
Less than two years ago, business leaders of the Nation’s Capital—the folks who build our buildings, run our restaurants, and fix our streetlights—succeeded in a remarkable coup d’état, ousting Republican Carol Schwartz from the at-large council seat that she’d held onto for four terms.
Her sin? Schwartz pushed through a piece of legislation, the “Sick and Safe” act, that guaranteed paid sick leave to most D.C. employees, putting our fair city on the vanguard of employment law and royally pissing off employers forced to shell out for absentee workers. As a punishment, a number of business leaders led a behind-the-scenes insurrection, financing the GOP primary challenge of upstart Patrick Mara, who knocked Schwartz off in the Republican primary by attacking her business bona fides.
Mara, a young, white Republican unknown, got no further. With virtually no citywide appeal and Schwartz running as a write-in, he bombed in the general election. His showing opened the door for Brown, the scion of prominent Democrats who’d renounced his partisan past for an independent candidacy, running on small-business issues and his expertise in municipal finance.
Since taking office, Brown’s hardly become a Jack Evans clone. Ed Lazere of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, an organization that advocates for equitable city spending, says Brown’s “shown a real concern for making the tax system fair, making sure the city’s getting a fair deal on economic development projects, and making sure we’re preserving important programs that serve residents hurt by the recession.” Not exactly the Board of Trade agenda right there.
The union-labor-mandating provision, says the first-termer, is part of a broader package designed to staunch rising unemployment in recessionary times. Other portions of the bill beef up so-called “first source” requirements that contractors hire D.C. residents before suburbanites.
“It’s not a labor bill; it’s not a business bill—it’s a jobs bill,” Brown says of the legislation, which he co-introduced with Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. “When you’re looking at 31, 32 percent [unemployment],” he says, “these are significant historical numbers and sometimes you have to do some stuff that people may not exactly like.”
The city’s been through this battle before. Back in 2005, city officials were engaged in a crash deal to build a stadium and thus lure a Major League Baseball team to the District. And in order to grease the political wheels, that deal as negotiated required union-affiliated contractors to do the job, via what’s called a “project labor agreement,” or PLA.
That acronym rubbed a powerful constituency the wrong way. Builders hate, hate, hate PLAs. The local chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), the primary trade group for local construction outfits, to this day calls eliminating the agreements its “priority issue.” But the ABC mustered only three votes against the stadium agreement—from Vincent Orange, then the Ward 5 councilmember; Ward 8’s Marion Barry; and Schwartz.
The new bill requires PLAs on myriad new projects, though the impact of the bill depends on who you ask.
Eric J. Jones, the ABC’s chief D.C. lobbyist, estimates that the bill would cover “90 to 95 percent of all projects in the city,” and with less than 20 percent of the city construction workforce by his count belonging to a union, any union-only stricture could be devastating to local jobs.
“There’s no way the local construction industry could survive,” Jones says. “Companies just could not work in the city.”
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Sam Brooks, the former D.C. Council candidate turned green-building entrepreneur, calls the bill’s effects “potentially devastating” to job creation. “I do understand and respect that organized labor is trying to represent their members’ interest,” he says. “I just hope that everyone realizes this is moronic.”
Union leaders have a less apocalyptic perspective. Rick Powell, political director for the Metro Washington Labor Council AFL-CIO, says any talk of lasting damage to the construction industry is “an absolute lie.” The bill was written to apply to private developers who lean on city financing to get their building projects off the ground, he says—a standard that shouldn’t apply to the vast majority of city construction projects.
“If they use their own money, they can do whatever they want to do,” Powell says. “But if they want to use the city’s money to make millions and millions of dollars, then we have to protect the city’s money.” By “protect,” he means protecting city-financed projects from any bouts of labor unrest. “If they don’t want to deal with this, fine, go to the traditional financial institutions and have them finance your projects.”
Here’s what makes the irony especially delicious: A PLA requirement especially stands to rankle two of the key members of the coalition behind the Schwartz ouster. That would be M.C. Dean and Miller & Long, both non-union contractors that do tons of business in and with the District. Those companies, and their principal owners, pumped thousands into independent political committees that bombarded District households with anti-Schwartz mail. And now her replacement’s slugging them right in the gut.
Brown, true to his glad-handing nature, says he’s tried to reach out to the business community with an eye toward “middle ground” and “honest discussion.” But that may be hard to come by; all it has produced thus far is an honest discussion with construction-lobby and Chamber of Commerce types about how much they don’t like it. “That may have been a tactical mistake on his part,” Powell says. “As a result of him reaching out to them, they slapped him on the hand.”
The political stakes are sky-high—especially in an election year. Labor will be whipping their votes hard, Powell says. “This is the No. 1 priority for labor in 2010,” he says. “We’re judging everybody based on where they come down on this bill.” And for the business types, this is “Sick and Safe” Part II—a choice that will come with consequences.
The votes aren’t counted yet, but it’s clear that the unions—much more conscientious than the construction lobby in courting political favor—have a solid majority. Question is, with a Fenty veto on the table, could they have the nine votes for an override? With Schwartz rather than Brown on the council, the task would have been harder.
Jones declined to get into the political implications of the Schwartz ouster. “We haven’t even looked at that aspect of it,” he says. “At this point we have to look at who’s in office and deal with it.”
Barbara Lang, the CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and another key Schwartz opponent, says Brown’s support of a PLA requirement leaves her “concerned.” She says of Brown, “I appreciate that he has a constituency that he needs to support.”
Who Says Education Doesn’t Pay?
Last week, Fenty unveiled another choice campaign fundraising haul, gathering more than $800,000 over six months to push his total take to $3.6 million.
Much of that money has been raised out of town. Where his last report, filed in July, featured big-time New York money—from the likes of moguls Ronald Perelman, Stanley Druckenmiller, and Jonathan Tisch—his latest report shows some serious left-coast dollars. Fenty took in big bucks from Lost creator J.J. Abrams, agent Charles King, and poker superstar Phil Ivey, among other entertainment-industry notables.
But what has also been notable about his out-of-town fundraising is the dollars he’s netted from stalwart supporters of education reform. While a recent Washington Post poll found that D.C. residents are increasingly skeptical of Hizzoner’s reform efforts, big-time donors are standing by their man. No names loomed larger on the Jan. 31 report than those of Eli and Edythe Broad, the Los Angeles mega-philanthropists who have taken a particular interest in urban education reform. Add to that Lowell Milken, brother of infamous ’80s bond broker Michael Milken—the two run a foundation devoted to education reform efforts. In New York, Fenty picked up donations from philanthropist Julian Robertson and media mogul Mort Zuckerman, plus New York City chancellor Joel Klein.
That’s in addition to the money that’s flowed locally—from philanthropists such as the CityBridge Foundation’s Katherine Bradley, AOL moguls Jim Kimsey and George Vrandenburg, and real-estate financier Joe Robert.
Fenty’s campaign chair, Ben Soto, says education’s been a boon for Fenty 2010’s bottom line. “There are a lot of people enjoying what the mayor and [Michelle Rhee] are doing to reform the D.C. Public Schools,” he says, “and because of that they’re contributing to the campaign to continue that reform.” But Soto sees the biggest impact not among the high-dollar crowd, but in smaller donations from supportive average citizens.
All told. Fenty’s collected, by LL’s count, upward of $40,000 from big-pocketed supporters of school reform. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands his campaign has raked in from builders and developers, but it goes to show: School reform can be good politics in many different ways.
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