Plans for the new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport have rekindled tensions between two groups with a long and unhappy history: construction trade unions and the city’s minority community.
Labor is pushing Edgemoor, the Maryland developer selected by the city to lead the $1 billion project, for an agreement to use only unionized workers on the job.
The company maintains that such a pact would make it impossible to meet its pledge to the city of a 35 percent participation rate at the site for minority and women-owned firms.
“What we want is a labor harmony agreement that still allows us to reach our goals,” said Edgemoor managing director Geoffrey Stricker.
The issue adds another element of uncertainty to a project that has been fraught with political infighting and intrigue.
When Kansas City voters overwhelmingly approved the new terminal in November, many assumed that the venture was on its way. But City Hall and Edgemoor have yet to complete a memorandum of understanding, or MOU –– an initial document setting out the legal and regulatory path to construction.
A version of the MOU was rejected by the City Council on Dec. 14 on a 9-4 vote. Council members cited vague language, an inadequate community benefits package and concerns over a provision that could cost the city as much as $30 million in reimbursements to the company if the deal collapsed.
Another factor behind the vote was labor, a generous source of campaign contributions, which made clear to allies on the council that it was not happy with Edgemoor’s insistence on a “carve-out” — an exception that would allow the company to hire non-union minority firms.
Negotiations on the MOU continue this week.
Less visible, but equally consequential, have been the company’s talks with construction trade unions. Labor leaders said Edgemoor’s insistence on a carve-out reflects the firm’s lack of knowledge about Kansas City, unlike the locally-based Burns and McDonnell, an unsuccessful competitor for the airport job.
“There’s no reason this shouldn’t be a 100 percent union job,” said Dave Wilson, a spokesman for the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters’ Regional Council. “No reason whatsoever.”
It is construction unions that are most seriously out of touch, some minority leaders assert. KCI, the biggest public works project in the city’s history, has tapped into what they describe as more than 40 years of frustration.
Despite promises of more apprenticeships and jobs, many minority carpenters, concrete workers and journeymen laborers have had to watch an historic construction boom in the city from the outside looking in.
“Traditionally the construction unions have not been inclusive,” said Kelvin Perry, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City.
Councilman Jermaine Reed said in an e-mail that the city’s east side has repeatedly gone to the ballot box to support “large-scale infrastructure projects that have allowed the unions to flourish.”
“I would like to see the unions break their pattern that time and time again has revealed they are unable and unwilling to share the wealth with those in the Kansas city community. This may mean agreeing to a carve-out,” he said.
City data appears to support Edgemoor’s position that a carve-out is essential. Only about half of the city’s approximately 640 certified minority and women-owned businesses are unionized.
“We do not believe the project would be successful in meeting (hiring) goals if it were designated all union,” the city’s human resources director, Phillip Yelder, told a City Council committee late last year. “We believe there must be an inclusion for all contractors to be able to participate.”
In an effort to prod the sides to agreement, Mayor Sly James summoned the players to a meeting on Jan. 4. Those who attended the session included Alise Martiny, business manager for the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades Council, and Stricker of Edgemoor.
Martiny declined to comment on the meeting or talks with the company.
Joni Wickham, James’ chief of staff, said the mayor reminded the group that he was bound by Missouri law, which prohibits government officials from giving preferential treatment to unions on public sector projects.
“He doesn’t want to prescribe whatever the agreement is, but he wants them to work it out,” Wickham said.
What emerged from the meeting was an idea for two unusual community forums to be held this week
Minority construction contractors have been invited to meet with union leaders, Edgemoor and the companies that will be building the terminal (Clarkson, Clark and Weitz). The objective will be to hear from potential minority and women subcontractors and explore how more of them can be brought into a labor agreement.
“Take the opportunity to interact with leaders of our joint venture team as well as the leadership of the Kansas City Labor Unions,” a flier for the gatherings says.
The meetings are scheduled for 3 pm. Tuesday and Thursday at the Minority Contractors Association offices on Wayne Avenue.
Stakeholders in the KCI project expressed the hope that the sessions will improve the tone of an historically difficult relationship.
“I would like to see the union community listen to the community at large and hear what they’re saying,” said Bridgette Williams, executive director of the Heavy Constructors Association, which represents about 150 builders and suppliers. “Hopefully, Edgemoor and the unions can go back to the table and figure out a path forward that benefits the community as a whole.”
Edgemoor appears to have made significantly more progress in meeting its 35 percent target for signing up minority and women-owned firms on the non-construction side of the project, including civil and structural engineers.
But even with a carve-out, Edgemoor will likely be hard pressed to meet its promise to the council, embedded in the MOU, for 35 percent minority and women participation in construction work on the airport. Over the last three years, their presence in city-supported development projects has averaged just over 22 percent.
“We campaigned for a new KCI on the firm promise that businesses and citizens in the Kansas City community would have an opportunity to participate on this once-in-a-lifetime project whether they were union or not,” said Reed, a candidate for mayor in 2019. “The unions should respect this promise and remember that if it were not for the citizens, there would be no project.”