BEND — Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian said he will work with labor to close a loophole in state statutes that allow universities and public schools to avoid paying prevailing wages on construction projects.
“This is a sham,” Avakian told delegates at the 51st convention of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council (OSBCTC). Avakian was responding to question about the Oregon University System skirting prevailing wage laws during a candidates’ forum Aug. 16. Avakian, a Democrat, is being challenged in November by Republican state Sen. Bruce Starr. OSBCTC endorsed Avakian in the non-partisan race.
“We’ve got projects in the state right now that are being done by public entities, but what they’re doing is taking their land, they’re taking the project, they’re giving it to a booster club or some other private group that does all the construction and all the funding to it — with this handshake that at the end, it’s all going to be gifted back to the public body for use,” Avakian said.
Avakian said this scenario played out on the $200 million basketball arena project at the University of Oregon, and it’s happening at some local high schools, whereby the school donates its football field to the booster club, which in turn pays for re-turfing without being subject to prevailing wage laws. After the project is done, the field is gifted back to the school.
“It’s a loophole in the law that has absolutely got to be closed,” Avakian said. “You better believe that I will be right up there with your leadership and leading the way to get that loophole closed and make sure that workers who work on these truly public projects get the money they deserve.”
Starr wasn’t quite as emphatic with his answer. “As far as I’m concerned, universities that use public tax dollars should be paying prevailing wage on any construction project.”
A legislator since 1999, Starr said bills on this issue have been introduced in the past but have gone nowhere. “The politics on this are interesting to say the least,” he said. “Legislation has been introduced; we’ve seen where those bills have gone … You look at who runs the Oregon Senate, and that has a lot to do (with) where legislation like this goes.”
In response to a question about using the labor commissioner bully pulpit to advocate for a fair permitting process for proposed coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals, Starr replied: “There’s no equivocation on this from my perspective, it’s absolutely yes … I will be championing projects like this in the Legislature … I will advocate for it. I will lead on it. We have to get it done.”
Avakian wasn’t quite as emphatic.
“My opponent and I both know that there are no real plans in Oregon right now that are going to end up with an LNG facility or a coal facility being built in the near future. Politically speaking, it just is not going to happen right now. Whoever tells you different than that, whether it’s politics or not, is not giving you the straight scoop.”
Avakian said he supports memoranda being signed by building trades councils assuring that terminals are built under union project labor agreements. “If any one of those facilities is going to be built, I’m going to lead the way to see that it’s union jobs that are building it,” he said. “But we need jobs right now, not 10 years from now.”
Keynote speaker U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he wants to work closely with labor on U.S. energy policy that results in a win, win, win for everyone. “Energy is what drives our ability to manufacture and create good family-wage jobs,” he said.
Wyden, who will chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year if Democrats retain control of the chamber, cited a “hot off the presses” report showing carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. have fallen to their lowest levels in 20 years. He said all the evidence points to increased use of natural gas as the reason why.
“Natural gas has become a strategic American advantage for us in the last year and half. We got it and the world wants it,” he said.
“So, if we go with unfettered exports, for example to Asia, I’m really concerned about what that means for our big industries here, for equipment, and manufacturing, and construction, and food processing, and the like.”
[OSBCTC passed a resolution at the convention calling for an expedited review of proposed coal and liquefied natural gas export terminals in the state. Regional building trades councils have signed letters of understanding with several companies to build the terminals with union labor. ]
“We’re going to have to work through the various issues on natural gas exports, and also work through the issues on coal exports that I know all of you care a great deal about,” Wyden said. “I think if we think it through together — and working families and the coalition of progressive voices deal with this right, we can strike that balance between having affordable energy, which is important for all of us for good-paying jobs, and we can protect our treasures (land, air and water).”
On Medicare reform, Wyden said steps must be taken to hold down costs to protect the Medicare guarantee. “Anyone who thinks we don’t have to do anything about Medicare needs to think about just one statistic: 10,000 Americans will turn 65 every single day for the next 20 years.” Wyden said President Obama started the process with the Affordable Care Act, and it’s important that it not be repealed. “But there’s a lot more to do,” he said.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum told delegates that she is a strong supporter of project labor agreements and prevailing wage laws, and that PLAs should be standard on all public pre-bid construction contracts. “Prevailing wage laws are critical to supporting working families,” she said. “I will work aggressively to defend them.”
Rosenblum won the Democratic primary for attorney general in May and was appointed to the post by Gov. John Kitzhaber in June, following the resignation of John Kroger. She is serving in the appointed position until January and must win the general election in November to retain the position. She is Oregon’s first female attorney general.
In convention business, delegates passed a handful of resolutions, elected officers, and handed out two $1,000 college scholarships.
Kevin Jensen of Iron Workers Local 29 was re-elected president and John Mohlis of Bricklayers and Allied Trades Local 1 was retained as executive secretary. Also elected by acclamation were Calvin McKinnis of Plasterers Local 82, vice president; Clif Davis of IBEW Local 48, guard; Bud Bartunek of Painters and Allied Trades District Council No. 5, conductor; trustees Al Shropshire of Plumbers and Fitters Local 290; John Candioto of Sheet Metal Workers Local 16; Stan Danielson of Insulators Local 36; Matt Eleazer of Bricklayers Local 1; Brett Hinsley of Cement Masons Local 555; Russ Garnett of Roofers Local 49; Jeff Gritz of Laborers Local 121; and Board members Pat Smith of Lane, Coos, Curry, Douglas BCTC; Jon Flegel of Southern Oregon BCTC; Jodi Guetzloe Parker of the Columbia Pacific BCTC; Dave Burger of Central Oregon BCTC; Leroy Marney of the Salem BCTC; and Chuck Little of the Pendleton BCTC.
Scholarships were awarded to Taylor Rice and Courtney Hamer. Taylor is the daughter of Laborers Local 296 member Dusty Rice. The Gresham High grad will attend Linfield College this fall where she will study athletic training. Courtney is the daughter of Glenn Sandstrom of Plumbers and Fitters Local 290. She lives in Laurelwood, Colorado, and attends the Denver School of Nursing.
The scholarships were funded by $1,000 contributions from Ferguson Wellman Capital Management and Quest Investment. Recipients were picked by Duke Shepard, a policy adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber.