Shame on Saint Louis County Council for Union Cronyism
We witness one of the more unsavory examples of democracy gone wrong when elected officials abandon any pretense of fair-mindedness and nakedly use the power of government to reward supporters and punish opponents. Saint Louis County government gave us a brazen example of this when the county council passed an ordinance (No. 25,298) with a 5-2 vote in December that favors union contractors over their non-union counterparts. This is the county’s latest, and most outlandish, example of union-favoring legislation. The Missouri General Assembly should take action to prohibit local governments from enacting these types of laws.
The Saint Louis County Council passed, and County Executive Charlie Dooley signed, a bill that will prohibit non-union construction contractors from participating in all but the smallest county projects. Two members of the council’s Democrat majority who voted for the bill, Chairman Mike O’Mara and Patrick Dolan, are affiliated with unions that will directly benefit from this rank favoritism. At a minimum (here, the barest of minimums), they should have recused themselves from the vote.
The new law lays down several new requirements on county construction bidders. Of course, it does not specifically say the bids and contracts are “union-only” because that would be illegal. Instead, it mandates a requirement that will legally accomplish the same goal. The new ordinance requires that bidders offer apprentice-training programs that are generally found in union shops. For all practical purposes, the only way a contractor or company can offer this type of program — and be allowed to participate in county bids — is to become a union shop. It would be an extreme burden for the typical independent, non-union company to participate in the apprentice program. Whatever that burden may be, the county council has no business mandating it.
While some non-union companies do participate in apprentice programs through industry organizations, union-affiliated companies still have a decided advantage in meeting the requirements of this new bill. This is a blatant ploy to guarantee that union companies will win all county bids.
The non-union shops will now not win any bids, and likely will not participate in the bid process either. This will hurt taxpayers. Limiting the number of potential bidders can only have one effect: raising overall prices. Researchers at the Beacon Hill Institute found that Project-Labor Agreements (PLAs), another method of union-favoring project bidding, raised costs to taxpayers by 27 percent over non-PLA projects (which included many non-union bidders). This new law for Saint Louis County will likely have a similar result.
Using the council’s authority to prevent non-union contractors from even attempting to participate in county projects is an egregious misuse of power. It is bad enough that this will increase costs to taxpayers, but the use of government for political favoritism is simply indefensible and immoral.
State government need not allow this. Local governments are creatures of states, and the residents of Saint Louis County deserve for the state to correct this legislation. State government should quickly address this practice and prohibit local governments from favoring unions in the bidding process. (To be clear, local governments should not be allowed to discriminate against unions and union contractors, either.) We have a system of checks and balances to address exactly this type of unbalanced legislation. Unfortunately, the first option — a county executive veto — failed. Higher levels of government or the circuit courts need to correct this unseemly example of crony government.
David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.