Council backs union labor provisions

 

June 4, 2021

Jana Peterson

At the first in-person Cloquet city council meeting held in more than 14 months, all open chairs were taken by people eager to weigh in on the city's on-again-off-again project labor agreement. The council voted 4-3 to reinstate the PLA Tuesday, a move that was greeted with applause by pro-PLA audience members.

Thanks to Ward 2 councilor Sheila Lamb, the Cloquet City Council's 4-3 vote to repeal the city's project labor agreement May 4 became a 4-3 vote to preserve it Tuesday evening.

Lamb said she spent the last month studying the PLA issue, having conversations with people from the city of Duluth, local union members and examining lawsuits targeting the labor agreements around the country.

"I think that PLAs protect the city on multiple levels and our citizens," Lamb said. "It was why I made my request two weeks ago and would like the opportunity to change my vote in order to keep the PLA in place."

Tuesday marked the fourth time the city's elected officials have debated the PLA since March, when the council closed its meeting to discuss legal strategies regarding a civil lawsuit filed against the cities of Cloquet, Two Harbors and Duluth in U.S. District Court. That same night, prior to their legal discussion, the council voted unanimously to amend the PLA, removing language that required all employees covered by the agreement to "remain members of good standing in their respective Unions" or "become members of the respective Unions within seven days after their employment." They also added language to the PLA stating that "nothing in this agreement" requires employees to join a union or pay fees to a union. That lawsuit is still working its way through the court system, with multiple motions to dismiss awaiting a hearing on June 11 in St. Paul.

Because Tuesday's PLA vote was not a public hearing, mayor Roger Maki limited the number of speakers from the audience of nearly 20 people to two people for either side of the issue at 3 minutes each.

Only Cloquet's Lee Anderson asked the council to uphold its May 4 vote to repeal the PLA, making the argument that it is a direct subsidy to unions, increases project costs and does not ensure a better or more timely outcome for each project.

Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, touted the changes made to the PLA agreements in recent years, including the addition of the Helmets to Hardhats program that puts veterans coming off duty to the front of the list to get work.

Olson talked about the lawsuit, noting that union attorneys worked with the city to remove the union security clause language targeted in the lawsuit in March. "Once we fixed that [security clause language], their argument is moot," Olson said. "Repealing the PLA does not remove any legalities or liabilities from any of us - it doesn't fix the problem by getting rid of the PLA."

Cloquet's Wayne Nordin, with the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, spoke next. The Cloquet High School alumnus talked about union involvement in the community.

"We're involved in the community; we're involved with the schools. We design curriculum for the schools, for automatic entry into our apprenticeship program," Nordin said, pointing to his son in the audience as a Cloquet student who followed that track out of high school. "This PLA is to level the playing field, so you guys can look at good honest bids."

Lamb opened the council discussion with her reasons for changing her mind, referring to an email she sent to fellow councilors with criteria she used to make up her mind.

At-large Councilor Lara Wilkinson talked about making changes to the PLA based on the last three years of experience "so we can find that balance between keeping our jobs local, keeping our local people working and making sure that we are not overlooking perhaps some elements we found to be problematic."

Ward 4 councilor Kerry Kolodge said many of the files shared by Lamb advocated for prevailing wage, and proposed replacing the PLA with an ordinance requiring prevailing wage instead, echoing city administrator Tim Peterson, who had pointed out the city already follows prevailing wage requirements on state-funded projects.

"I've seen a lot of really good things in those articles that you sent ... there's all kinds of things that would likely benefit the worker - who we are trying to help - without affecting the city," Kolodge said. He rattled off a list of people that don't like the PLA: city staff, the Cloquet Economic Development Authority, the former Sappi mill manager, a union contractor in town, plus the lawsuit. "Can we consider some kind of compromise?"

Mayor Roger Maki said he could not read the 89 pages of documents Lamb sent earlier in the day, but expressed support for the work the city staff had done looking into the PLA and its effects on certain projects.

Ward 3 councilor Chris Swanson said he stood by his previous vote to keep the PLA, as did Ward 5 councilor Lyz Jaakola. Both teachers are union members.

Jaakola suggested Kolodge further develop his proposal. Swanson concurred.

"I think we should start with a reset of the PLA and work backward, rather than starting with no PLA and fighting forward," Swanson said.

After some confusion over exactly what they were voting on, Swanson motioned to reinstate the PLA as it was prior to the May 4 meeting. Councilors Lamb, Swanson, Jaakola and Bun Carlson voted yes; councilors Kolodge and Wilkinson and mayor Maki voted no.

Audience members clapped when Peterson announced the motion had passed.

In other matters Tuesday:

Pine Knot News publisher Pete Radosevich shared an update on CAT-7 TV with the council prior to the PLA discussion. "It's nice to see so many people came out for our CAT-7 presentation," he said to chuckles from the audience.

Radosevich said the focus of keeping people informed of local events and local information is progressing nicely; he's added daily weather forecasts and hopes to get more community feedback. Church services and city meetings are still a big part of content, but so are things like the Carlton choir concert, which didn't livestream as planned, so it has aired on CAT-7 for several weeks.

• Public works director Caleb Peterson said construction will start on the 14th Street project between Cloquet and Carlton avenues on June 7; when that is mostly complete, workers will start on 14th Street between Carlton and Prospect avenues. "We have a good plan to keep the Carlton Avenue intersection open most of the summer," he said. Residents impacted directly should have received a mailing from the city. The official detour will be to Highway 33, but he said he expects residents will use some side streets more often.

The council meets next at 6 p.m. June 15 in the Council Chambers at Cloquet City Hall.

 
 

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