The impasse over labor negotiations for the new Kansas City International Airport terminal is close to an end.
Tuesday - shortly after my column was posted online, reporting on a possible deal - a spokesperson for the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council said a “tentative” agreement had been reached, one that would put an end to the tangled racial and union politics that have bedeviled the project for months.
“Our goal from the beginning has been to ensure the workforce on this project has access to fair wages and benefits, and we think this deal will accomplish that,” said a statement from Joe Hudson, the Carpenters’ political director.
Others involved in the talks were more cautious, suggesting small details need to be worked out. But there is optimism that one of the biggest headaches at KCI is over.
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It’s about time.
Negotiators for Edgemoor, the terminal developer, and labor representatives have been working on a deal for weeks. The sticking point: Labor wanted every subcontractor at the airport to use a union workforce.
Edgemoor said a 100 percent union project would preclude bids from many minority- and women-owned firms, which often use non-union labor. That would limit minority participation in the project.
Some leaders in Kansas City’s minority community have been quite angry about that possibility. Last week, Gwen Grant of the Urban League accused labor of holding the terminal project “hostage,” to the detriment of minority contractors.
“Organized labor has a solid track record of exclusionary policies and practices that make it difficult, often impossible, for African Americans and Latinos to obtain union credentials,” she said on KCPT-TV. Unions “should be held accountable,” she added.
This kind of back-and-forth worried everyone connected with the terminal project. Left unresolved, the labor dispute would delay progress on the new terminal, costing jobs, including union jobs.
It could also add to the costs for travelers and frustrate the airlines collecting the fees and taxes needed for the project.
In recent weeks, labor unions moved away from an insistence on 100 percent union labor at the terminal. Unions tentatively agreed to a specific “carve-out” for non-union labor, based on man-hours on the project. They also agreed to a no-strike clause in the agreement.
We’ve been tough on labor on these pages in recent months. Here, though, they should be applauded: Compromise was essential in moving the terminal project ahead. Other compromising stakeholders, including Edgemoor and the minority community, deserve credit, too.
But there is more to this apparent agreement than just KCI. The labor-minority-Edgemoor dispute also endangered the campaign against Proposition A, the so-called right-to-work law on the ballot next month.
Union leaders bitterly oppose Proposition A, which they believe will further decimate union membership in the state. A public feud with minority voters in Kansas City (and, for that matter, St. Louis) is the last thing labor wants or needs in the days leading to the election.
They need strong minority turnout in both cities to prevail.
Edgemoor wants a KCI deal, too. After announcing delays and cost overruns, the company would like the good-news headline a project labor agreement would bring.
The City Council’s airport committee will discuss the project Thursday. The labor situation is almost certain to come up.
Of course, the deal must be finalized - as in all negotiations, nothing is settled unless everything is settled. Perhaps the looming public vote on right-to-work legislation has focused everyone’s attention on the risk of prolonging a needless argument at the airport.
Remember: The labor impasse wasn’t about pay and benefits for workers on the new KCI terminal. Even non-union workers are expected to earn union wages. Instead, the disagreement really revolved around the perceived need for more union members.
But organized labor appears to understand it will suffer if Proposition A passes. That provided the final push to get the agreement over the finish line - and for the KCI terminal project to move toward getting back on track.