It ended almost before it began, but Tuesday's brief and largely unnoticed exchange between City Councilman Mitch Harper and City Utilities Executive Director Kumar Menon could have been the opening salvo in the next phase of council's campaign to reform collective bargaining in Fort Wayne.
At least it should be.
Until now, council has targeted only unions representing city employees. Overriding two vetoes by Democratic Mayor Tom Henry, its six-member Republican majority has ended bargaining for non-public safety workers and, just this week, passed a local “right to work” law stating that police officers and firefighters could not be required to join a union in order to keep their jobs. Councilman Marty Bender, R-at large and a deputy police chief, also proposed a bill that would have ended taxpayer funding of police and fire union positions – a bill that fell one vote short of the number needed for introduction only because of a Republican absence.
But Tuesday, as Menon successfully outlined a proposed sewer rate increase needed to pay for $292 million in improvements over the next five years needed to comply with federal clean-water mandates, Harper, R-4th, asked this question:
Will workers on those projects be paid using a wage scale established by the AFL-CIO?
Menon didn't answer, nor could he. Right now, that decision is up to Mayor Tom Henry, who has consistently appointed members to city “common wage” committees who adopt union-level minimum wages on projects costing more than $350,000 even though state law allows the committee to use a lower pay scale non-union contractors claim can cut costs by 15 percent to 30 percent.
A year ago, Harper said he was about to propose a bill that would have given council one of Henry's two appointments to the five-member committee – a change that would have effectively shifted the city's committee from pro-union to pro-merit shop. Under the state's common wage law, the mayor appoints two members, the Republican Allen County Commissioners appoint one, organized labor one and the non-union Associated Builders and Contractors one.
That bill was never introduced, however, apparently because of questions about council's authority to make an appointment. Some have suggested it might be wise, politically and otherwise, for council to take a break from months of votes decried by critics as “union busting.” But Harper told me Wednesday he believes a debate over the city's pro-union position under the common wage law “is a discussion worth having. (The law) is an anachronism from another era.”
City spokesman John Perlich said state law currently prohibits council from appointing a person to any office or employment, including the wage committee. "Mayor Henry is focused on issues that meet the needs of residents and businesses by investing in our future, attracting and retaining jobs, and remaining committed to enhancing our neighborhoods," he said.
But regardless of what council or the state do or don't (and Harper is a bit coy on that point), Henry could – and should – protect taxpayers by agreeing to use non-union wages on some of the huge projects the city is planning over the next three years. He has criticized council for its treatment of “hard-working, award-winning city employees,” and there are good arguments for and against what council has done, but Henry has no legal or moral obligation to protect the interests of private-sector unions.
He does, however, have an obligation to protect the interests of the taxpayers who could keep more of their own money, or get more for their money, were the city not willingly overpaying for large construction projects. Compared to the bargaining-related votes council has taken to date, tackling the perverse incentives imposed by the common-wage law may be even more worthwhile and obvious.
The estimated savings touted by merit-shop contractors may be inflated, but there's no denying that unions believe they benefit from the law. If that were not true, they would not work so hard to keep it on the books or to convince committee members to adopt union wages. But on multimillion-dollar projects, the prospect of saving a small percentage of the cost can equal big money for taxpayers.
A savings of 15 percent on the $257 million City Utilities bond approved by council Tuesday, for example, amounts to $38.5 million. The city is also considering spending millions on riverfront development and later this month will open bids on a parking garage being built for the Ash Brokerage-Hanning & Bean downtown development. The city is contributing about $39 million to the $98 million project (but it is probably too late to affect the outcome of that wage decision).
Henry has shown no interest to date in using non-union wages on city projects – something that would surely alienate a large segment of the Democratic Party's base. But his vetoes of council's bargaining and right-to-work bills left no doubt as to his commitment to organized labor.
His willingness to allow the free market to work its magic on hundreds of millions of dollars in imminent city spending would demonstrate whether he is equally committed to the people who will be providing the money.