Broward News

Labor Gripes about Cheney Firm Prompt County Review of Hiring, Contract Practices

The people united will often be defeated, sad to say. But labor union members yesterday took some measure of satisfaction from Palm Beach County commissioners' response to workers' complaints about unfair treatment by Kellogg Brown and Root, the many-tentacled global corporate octopus formerly helmed by war criminal former VP Dick Cheney.

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Union members claim the company, which shares in a nearly $700 million contract to build a new waste-to-energy plant for the county, is hiring out-of-state labor for the job and refusing to use union labor. KBR's anti-union philosophy was well-known to the county when the contract was awarded two years ago. "I hate to say I told you so," union leader Sean Mitchell told the board. "But I told you so."

About two hundred union members and supporters had turned out bright and early to bring their complaint to county commissioners, sitting at 9 a.m. as the board of the county's Solid Waste Authority. The protestors' cars lined the road for a quarter-mile in either direction outside the entrance to SWA headquarters, amid the huge complex of the authority's facilities and greenways in the north-central part of the county.

Inside, as the meeting began, and although the dispute was not on the board's agenda, union leaders one-by-one trooped to the mic to voice their complaints, while union members in protest t-shirts sat scattered in the audience, about half the crowd present. Unlike the lawyers, lobbyists and businessmen present, the union leaders had nothing slick about them: Their hair was cut by barbers, not stylists; they were not "dressed for success."

"My guys decided to meet on the picket line today," Mitchell told the board. "Not the unemployment line." Acknowledging that the KBR consortium's bid to build and operate the plant had been the lowest of three, he said the loss to the county of wages going out-of-state instead of circulating locally revealed the contract award as an instance of knowing "the cost of everything and the value of nothing."

Following Mitchell, Commissioner Shelley Vana, who'd voted against awarding the contract to KBR, said her concern was to "give the union equal chances." She pointed out, as she had before, that KBR reps had told her flat-out that their business model is anti-union. The board had been mistaken, she said, to deal with what is "in my opinion, the devil."

Other union leaders followed in turn, pointing out the historical contributions of organized labor to bettering the lives of American workers, denouncing KBR's payment of per diems up to $80  for out-of-state hires, and praising union-government collaborations like St. Lucie County's Green Collar Task Force.

The commissioners took heed. Priscilla Taylor, who'd voted for the KBR bid, asked SWA executive director Mark Hammond for the numbers on KBR's hiring on the project. Hammond said the company reported 37% of skilled labor was local, 92% of unskilled--both numbers in excess of the company's contractual obligations of 20% skilled, 80% unskilled. But, Hammond added, the company's claims had not been audited.

Commissioner Jess Santamaria wasn't buying it, saying he felt "uneasy" as to whether workers had been properly identified. And, he added, hiring "should be one hundred percent local" unless unavailable in the local market.

In response to a question from Commissioner Mary Lou Berger, SWA general counsel Jim Mize said that Florida law and state and federal constitutional constraints forbid local hiring preferences in government contracts. (Strange, in that the KBR contract includes local hiring goals, and numerous local municipalities insist on them. But we're no lawyers.)

"There's something wrong with this picture," Berger said, and said the board "needs to talk to fellow elected officials about what can be done to address this." 

In the end, the board bowed to the unions--to a limited extent. They directed Hammond to rigorously audit KBR's claims ("Get the Sheriff involved," said Vana) and decided, though without a formal vote, to bring the question of local hiring preferences to the County Board of Commissioners, to see if the practice can be introduced to all future county contracts. (Not without some carping from Taylor and Commissioner Steven Abrams, who piped up that "price differences can override local preferences," Taylor insisting that KBR be present at the next board meeting.)

Outside the building afterwards, unionists were only partially assuaged, anxious to see what the audit would show, glad to have local preferences perhaps be taken seriously. They were visibly upset with Commissioner Taylor, one leader saying she "hadn't met with her in two years," another vowing "It's time to take her out of office."

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