Broward News

Palm Beach Ironworkers vs Spawn of Cheney, Round Two

When Palm Beach County two years ago awarded a subsidiary of Kellogg Brown & Root a share of a $668 million contract to build a new waste treatment facility, the company's anti-union ways were no secret. But KBR's was the cheapest of three competing proposals, so commissioners gave the firm the job. Members of the local ironworkers union protested, to no avail.

Now the union's back to say "told you so," that union workers are getting stiffed and that KBR's hiring out-of-state labor, so that public money going to wages is leaving instead of circulating here, ultimately costing the county more than it's supposedly saving.

Money aside, we're disgusted the county's doing business for any reason with a company foul as KBR.

KBR will be forever linked with war criminal former vice-president Dick Cheney, CEO of its parent company Halliburton from 1995 to 2000. In addition to a Nigerian bribery scandal in which Cheney himself was indicted, the company has a history of questionable, no-bid Pentagon contracts, overbilling, offshore tax-dodges, sanctions-skirting and environmental abuses.

Palm Beach officials ignored all that when they awarded the contract for a new waste-to-energy plant to the companies Babcock & Wilcox and KBR subsidiary BE&K, Inc. But company labor practices were hotly debated.

At an April 13, 2011, sitting as the board of the county's Solid Waste Authority, Commissioners Burt Aaronson, Karen Marcus and, especially, Shelley Vana, repeatedly pressed company reps on local hiring and unions. The reps committed to no more than 20% "skilled local labor" and made noises about trying for more. BE&K's attorneys expressed openness to hiring union workers but said collective bargaining agreements were out of the question.

In the end, the board approved the B&W/BE&K contract, Commissioners Vana, Paulette Burdick and Marcus opposed.

What's happened since has confirmed the union's fears: One strike and you're out. 

Ironworkers Local 402 business manager Sean Mitchell told New Times that in the time leading up to the April vote, at a meeting in Vana's office, a BE&K representative stated flatly that the company's "business model is not to let unions in their house."

Mitchell said that in following months he met repeatedly with representatives of BE&K's partner B&W but that "opportunities to bid were promised but never materialized." At one point, he said, a union-affiliated contractor and architect were asked to submit plans for a feature of plant.

"They told us it was too much money," Mitchell said. Then there were personnel changes at B&W and "no more word from anyone there for the last eight months." 

Mitchell said the union has no shortage of "local, qualified workers. They're on-time, drug-free, safety-trained--the best of the best. My guys just want to work." Meanwhile, KBR hiring sheets include offers of per diems to workers who live beyond a 50-mile radius of the SWA jobsite. 

Mitchell estimates that fully 25% of the SWA's nearly $700 million contract goes to wages--and that wages have an 8-fold multiplier effect as workers purchase and spend. If those numbers are right, the impact of wages lost to the area obliterates the difference between the KBR job bid and that of its rivals.

KBR failed to respond to our request for comment on this story.

The ironworkers realize that, under the terms of the KBR contract, there is no way to force the companies to increase local or union hiring. But they believe public pressure can lead county officials to push the companies as best they can.

Union members will be out in strength to picket the next meeting of the SWA board, Wednesday, Feb. 13. The board meets at 9 a.m.; the workers will be there at 8, hoping for a sizable turnout of concerned citizens. The SWA Auditorium is located at 7501 N. Jog Road, WPB.

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"A Dream of the 1%"

Interested in how those who run the world run the world? The Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition is this Sunday hosting an appearance by Alissa Simmons, national field director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

Simmons is touring Florida to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a little-known trade agreement currently being negotiated between 11 countries including the U.S., Mexico, Canada and the workshops of Southeast Asia--Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam.  

Public Citizen describes the negotiations as "closed-door talks," the texts of which are available to "600 corporate advisors" while "the public, Members of Congress, journalists, and civil society are excluded." 

The federal government says the secrecy is so negotiators can "communicate with each other with a high degree of candor, creativity, and mutual trust."  

Public Citizen calls the pact "a dream of the 1%," with consequences for government and civil society's protection of "the environment, human and labor rights, consumer rights, and the right to a traditional indigenous or farming lifestyle." 

Hear Simmons's take on how and why:

Alissa Simmons, Public Citizen
Sunday Jan. 27, 2:30 pm 

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