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The Conundrum of 'Local Hire' PDF Print E-mail
Monday, February 23, 2009

ImageI have heard the simple and potent argument often before. I heard it most recently early this month, from Francee Covington, a Redevelopment Agency Commissioner: If we are paying for a project, our people should have first crack at the jobs. Considered carefully, though, the argument is not so simple. It pits popular expectation against union ideals.

It pits popular expectation against union ideals. It provides on the one hand a point of leverage to boost the underprivileged into our trades and the middle class, and on the other hand an opening both for some workers to slight our need for a productive workforce and for some individuals to seek power and privilege by pitting worker against worker.

The standard feature of our dispatch systems that gives first preference to the worker who has been without work longest arises from the union ideal of sharing employment and unemployment as equally as possible. Dispatch under some of our master agreements adheres more strictly to this feature than under others. Insofar as any dispatch system gives first preference to the worker who has been out of work longest, local hire goals, by setting up a different order of preference, stand in direct contradiction to this and to an important union ideal.

Human nature being what it is, almost any union business representative in San Francisco has on occasion heard a member say, "They can't run me off; I'm their local hire." The shrug that accompanies this statement comes usually at the expense of productivity and so stands, again, in direct contradiction to a union ideal. It damages us and our members also in a practical way, as it is our productivity that makes us competitive against our much lower-paid non-union counterparts. It damages even the goal of local hire itself, because not many such workers are needed to poison the attitude of contractors toward it, so that they will avoid it in any way they can or pad their bids in anticipation of it.

In desperate times like the present, the cry of "Local hire!" also becomes a tool of demagoguery, of crowd baiting. It allows some to draw a following by saying, "You should have the jobs they have." By pitting union worker against union worker, this contradicts yet another of our ideals.

Nonetheless local hire goals, properly applied, can serve a practical union need in a way that honors our ideal of equality while genuinely serving the community. Local hire goals can bring willing and very able workers into our ranks and break down barriers to achieve this.

The vast majority of foremen and other supervisors would not care if a worker were green with puce stripes if that worker produced; it is not a crew's race or ethnicity that demonstrates to the employer that its foreman is worth his few extra dollars an hour, but the production the crew achieves.

Yet that same need for production may lead a foreman to pay too much heed to certain doubts – about the effect of a worker's limited English abilities on crew efficiency, for example, or about whether a minority member from the inner city can carry the same work load as someone from a farming or peasant background.

Local hire goals can gain entry to a job for a worker who might otherwise be shut out by a foreman's doubts and can give that worker room to develop or demonstrate his or her skill and productivity. This is their truest value.

Whether through local hire goals or not, our unions take in many apprentices from San Francisco. Some among us have long believed that we take them in only to see them move away, when they reach a point in their careers where they decide to buy a home, but can't afford one here. A study done by the San Francisco Urban Institute in 2000 for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission on the racial and residential composition of several union locals affiliated with this Council supports this belief.

In all unions except the Laborers, who do not have a large apprenticeship program, the proportion of member apprentices living in the City was higher than the proportion of journey-level members, and sometimes much higher. Our very success in achieving local hire of apprentices may have made a broader success difficult at best.

We are reminded sometimes that unions in Southern California have recently touted the value of local hire provisions in project labor agreements ("PLAs") as a way of gaining acceptance of them by politicians and the public.

The local hire goal in the policy of the Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency favoring PLAs is thirty percent.

The local hire goal of the Redevelopment Agency in San Francisco for decades now has been fifty percent, and it has rarely been approached, let alone attained.

The population of Los Angeles is almost five times that of San Francisco. Its area is about ten times ours. To speak of "local hire" in Los Angeles, then, is roughly equivalent to speaking of hiring from several Bay Area counties, and not just San Francisco; yet we are expected to meet a goal higher than one claimed as a high achievement in the Southland.

And so we are doomed to a constant tension between public expectation – with the consequent demands of politicians – and the realities and ideals of our unions.

In recent weeks I have been meeting with representatives of the Chinatown community to discuss local hiring for the upcoming construction of the City College campus there. We are attempting to formulate a rational approach that will maximize local hiring while honoring union ideals. We plan to approach the Board of Trustees soon with measures for their approval and implementation. I am intensely grateful for this cooperative effort. I hope for considerable success from it. That success might not satisfy public expectations based on decades of an unrealistic goal, but it will be real.

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