The St. Louis County Council has overridden County Executive Steve Stenger's veto of legislation that does away with a requirement that contractors bidding for construction work have apprenticeship programs.
Tuesday's vote was 5-2, the minimum number needed. Two council Democrats — Chairman Sam Page and Vice Chair Hazel Erby — sided with all three Republican council members. The council took the unusual step of holding two meetings back to back, in order to obtain the necessary fifth vote from Councilman Ernie Trakas, a Republican from Oakville. He had been unable to attend the earlier meeting.
Labor union leaders had been lobbying heavily to prevent the override, contending that the change could lead to poorly trained construction workers on taxpayer-financed jobs.
Listen: "St. Louis on the Air" host Don Marsh talks to St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jo Mannies about St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger's re-election bid.
The measure's chief sponsor, Republican Colleen Wasinger of Huntleigh, contended that labor unions were misrepresenting its chief provisions. "It's a good bill, and it does not hurt anyone,'' she said.
The bill makes a host of changes to the county’s procurement regulations. Among other things, Wasinger said it calls for more oversight by the council.
One of the big changes was that it no longer would require bidders for certain contracts to either participate or maintain Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship programs. Such programs train workers to participate in certain trades — and are often associated with labor unions.
Wasinger and other proponents contend the measure would allow more minority- and female-owned companies to bid on county contracts. She told St. Louis Public Radio that the apprenticeship requirement was “a barrier to entry — that others that didn’t have an apprenticeship program could not even bid on county work.”
Stenger disagreed. In his veto letter, he called Wasinger’s bill “rife with flaws, most notably, the provision that removes the apprenticeship requirement in county construction contracts.”
Stenger was absent for Tuesday's override vote.
“This misguided action would negatively affect worker training, lower wages, diminish construction standards and weaken organized labor in our region,” Stenger wrote. “This legislation would effectively resurrect the anti-worker precepts that were part-and-parcel of the deceptively named right-to-work law that Missouri voters overwhelmingly defeated in August.”
Councilman Mark Harder, a Republican from Ellisville, blamed Stenger for failing to work with the council during the months involved in crafting the procurement bill. Harder accused Stenger of "petty political pandering."
Page, a Democrat from Creve Coeur and a frequent critic of Stenger, said his sole aim was to expand job and business opportunities. Erby, from University City, has been a frequent critic of trade unions. She maintains they haven’t been welcoming to minorities.
Labor says training programs help the county
One of the labor unions that jointly manages a federally designated apprenticeship program with area contractors is the St. Louis - Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council. The union partners with a host of contractors to train apprentices in a number of skills — from cabinet building to floorwork.
John Gaal, director of training and workforce development for the Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, emphasized that his union has trained scores of minority and female members of his trade union. And he said that removing the apprenticeship requirement is a bad idea: "I think it's going to be worse five years down the line when it comes to the tally of an increase of people of color and women on county projects."
“I would love to see (the council) set aside the politics and look at the safety of the workers and the future of this industry for their projects,” Gaal said.
He noted that Page, who is an anesthesiologist, has to go through rigorous training before he’s able to do his job — and that the same principle should apply to people working on construction projects.
“And I don’t think that person would appreciate an untrained person walking into an operating room and administering drugs to patients without the proper training,” Gaal said. “So I see it being a very parallel issue.”
By Wasinger's count, Stenger has vetoed 14 bills since April — and the council has overridden most of them. Stenger and the council have been at odds for nearly two years on many issues.
Most labor groups supported Stenger during a close Democratic primary challenge in August by businessman Mark Mantovani.
Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, a Democrat from Black Jack, joined with Councilman Pat Dolan from Webster Groves in siding with Stenger against Wasinger’s bill.
Gaal acknowledged that the ongoing conflict between Stenger and many council members may have led to Wasinger’s legislation passing.
“I do believe there are people sitting on the County Council that have an aversion to the county executive. And anybody who appears to be close to him or his administration, they’re using this as an opportunity to get back at him,” Gaal said. “And that’s unfortunate, because the citizens of St. Louis County are going to be short-changed because of a short-sighted political agenda.”
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