Scott MacKay Commentary: Why So Few RI Building Trades Workers At EB Quonset Jobs?

Feb 20, 2015

R.I. politicians love to talk about job-development plans. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why they aren’t  doing more to ensure that Rhode Islanders are hired for the Electric Boat expansion in Quonset.

General Dynamics Electric Boat's manufacturing site at Quonset Point in South County
Credit RIPR FILE

Everyone from Gov. Gina Raimondo down to the newest state lawmaker has a plan to create jobs in Rhode Island, which is still struggling with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. Raimondo says she has a laser focus on economic development and a gaggle of General Assembly members have submitted legislation that would give tax breaks to businesses that hire Rhode Islanders at decent wages.

What nobody seems to be talking about is why more Rhode Islanders in the hard-pressed building trades are not being hired for construction work on the new buildings that are needed for the expansion of submarine building at the former U.S. Navy base.

Submarine builder Electric Boat is having new facilities built at the former U.S. Navy base as it prepares to fulfill a contract for more Virginia-class subs. Yet union leaders in the construction industry have been complaining behind the scenes for months about the lack of hiring.

The building trades have been hard hit by the recession.  Roy Columbe of Ironworkers Local 37 says it has been very difficult to get the private contractors hired by Electric Boat, a division of the huge General Dynamics defense contractor, to hire local workers, especially union ironworkers.

``You look at the license plates in the parking lot,’’ says Columbe. ``They are from Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maine.’’ He says just two of 20 ironworkers on the job currently are members of his union local.

George Nee, president of the state AFL-CIO, says Electric Boat, which employs about 3,000 building submarines in Quonset, should encourage contractors to hire locally. Nee acknowledges the local hiring building subs, but says hiring more workers in the building trades would show a greater commitment to the state.

Ok, so union leaders obviously want companies to hire their members. That’s no surprise. What ius surprising is the lack of a project labor agreement on the Quonset work, which would require contractors to hire  Rhode Island union employees. Some companies resist these agreements because union workers cost more money. In this case, it seems those companies won out.

This situation is emblematic of a deeper issue: the decline of organized labor. And that’s at the heart  of a problem that just about every Democrat and even some Republicans wrestle with – the huge increase in income inequality.

Many studies point to a connection between the decline of private sector unions and inequality. This is especially true among men, says Jake Rosenfeld, a labor expert at the University of Washington. He told the New York Times that a full-time construction worker earns roughly $10,000 less per year now than in 1973, in today’s dollars. The likely reason – the percentage who are unionized has dropped from more than 40 percent to 14  percent.

For years, most of Rhode Island’s largest public building projects have been built with project labor agreements, which require a large proportion of workers be union members. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who favors such agreements for the Quonset work, says the state has benefited from hiring well-trained union construction workers who have a history of bringing projects in on time and on budget.

During her campaign, Democrat Raimondo said she favored projects agreements for such large projects as the Electric Boat expansion. She was elected with the support of building trades unions, including the iron workers and the Laborers International Union of North America. But since taking office, she has not publicly made any statements on the Quonset labor issue.

Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, is largely responsible for the multi-billion dollar submarine contracts won by Electric Boat.

Congressman Jim Langevin hold a seat on the House Armed Services Committee. He too has been silent on this matter.

It’s easy to hold press conferences and photo-op ``summits’’ with chamber-of-commerce types and talk about policies that will develop the economy. Ditto for blue-ribbon commissions and the endless white papers that have floated around our state for years, enriching consultants without putting jobs within reach of Rhode Islanders.

Raimondo deserves a honeymoon as she prepares her first budget. And Reed should get credit for bringing the submarine work to his home state. But it is past  time they and our other political leaders step up and work with Electric Boat brass to ensure that Rhode Island workers get a fair shot at construction jobs financed by the taxpayers.

Scott MacKay commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

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