Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Senate lawmakers vote to move forward with Community Workforce Agreements pilot

Mark Fowser
Delaware Public Media

Delaware’s Senate voted on Tuesday to move forward with a pilot to test two methods for diversifying the construction workforce on large public projects. But one of those methods — called Community Workforce Agreements — face fierce opposition from Republicans and some construction contractors.

As of 2022, more than 90 percent of firms awarded public construction contracts in Delaware were owned by white men, and Black Delawareans made up a disproportionately small share of workers on public construction sites.

Last year, House Democrats proposed requiring Community Workforce Agreements for large public construction projects in hopes of addressing those disparities.

The agreements are negotiated between the projects’ contractor and a labor union. Last year’s version would have given priority to workers from marginalized communities and required the contractor to hire 90 percent or more of their workforce through the union; the agreements would have also set standards for working conditions and prevented walkouts or strikes. Supporters also argued that the agreements would guarantee better wages and working conditions to workers on public projects while opening apprenticeship opportunities to expand the workforce; organized labor groups typically offer apprenticeship programs.

That bill stalled in committee after opponents argued it would inflate the cost and timelines of public works projects and exclude non-union workers; in the view of Republicans, shrinking the workforce available for public construction projects would drive up the cost of labor.

This year, a scaled-down version appeared in a mini-bond bill, allowing it to move to the Senate floor without a stand-alone committee hearing. Instead of requiring the agreements for all large public construction projects, it only requires them for four projects, and would allow greater flexibility in determining what share of a construction workforce the union would provide.

Though the scope of the proposal was more limited, it faced the same criticisms — if not more — as last year's bill. Contractor Javier Torrijos argued it would exclude non-union workers and shops, including minority-run firms like his.

“We want to make sure that it’s a free market," he testified on Tuesday. "That we can bid on these jobs, whether we’re union or non-union, and whether it’s a pilot program or not.”

Office of Management and Budget Director Cerron Cade, whose office would be responsible for overseeing the pilot, responded that while the pilot would require that contractors work with unions to provide some of their laborers, it would not exclude non-union workers or contractors entirely.

"We're only talking about state work, and it doesn't prohibit any firm — union or non-union — from bidding on a project," he said. "All it says is that a percentage of your workforce should be a part of organized labor and meet certain minority status and residency requirements."

State Senator Darius Brown says the goal is to assess whether the strategy increases the representation of minorities – especially Black Delawareans – in the public construction workforce.

“What this allows us to do is to measure," he said. "It allows us to collect data and look at who is doing better for the citizens of our state – whether it’s union, non-union or a combination of them both.”

Inclusion of the pilot program in the mini-bond bill drew harsh criticism from Republicans once again, who objected to the fast-track approach taken by Senate Democrats — a tactic that Republican Senators deemed insufficiently transparent. "You have the votes to get it through committee, which would give an opportunity for a public hearing," said Senator Eric Buckson. "Why not do that?"

"I can understand if people would prefer a different process, but I think it's important to note that this has followed a normal process for a [mini-bond bill] and it addresses a narrow issue that has been talked about for more than a year," responded Senate Majority Leader Brian Townsend.

Because of the Republican criticism, the mini-bond bill passed on a party-line vote and now heads to the House.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.