During the first in-person meeting in over a year, Cloquet city councilors voted 4-3 on Tuesday, June 1, to reverse their recent decision to eliminate project labor agreements from city code.

PLAs have been implemented in city projects that total $175,000 or more in costs since 2017, requiring contractors to abide by certain terms such as timelines, working conditions and budgets.

They have been a central topic of council discussion since early March due to pending litigation brought against the city in January that claims the PLA is discriminatory against independent contractors by prohibiting non-union workers from bidding on city projects.

PREVIOUSLY:

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Although the council has since removed the portion of the city’s PLA that prohibited non-union workers from bidding on city projects, city staff still believed that further action was necessary to avoid future legal issues.

“Lawsuits against the city directly impact the city’s taxpayers as the costs for defense and potential damages are passed on to them through property tax levies,” said the staff request for council action. “Staff believes it is in the best interest of those taxpayers and the city as a whole to resolve, at least in part, the current and potential future lawsuits in this way.”

Following extensive public comment and discussion, the council previously voted 4-3 to repeal the city ordinance requiring PLAs, effectively eliminating them from city code as of May 4.

Cloquet city officials debate on Tuesday, June 1, 2021, whether to repeal the city ordinance requiring project labor agreements. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)
Cloquet city officials debate on Tuesday, June 1, 2021, whether to repeal the city ordinance requiring project labor agreements. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)

However, the subject came back to the table at the very next council meeting, when Ward 2 Councilor Sheila Lamb asked for a reconsideration.

Lamb had previously voted against the PLA at the May 4 council meeting, but said upon further investigation, she changed her mind and wanted a chance to change her vote.

There was not an empty seat Tuesday as the council revisited the subject, with roughly 20 people in attendance.

In past discussions, those speaking against the PLA claimed it was detrimental to independent contractors and the city by preventing equal competition, while those in favor of the PLA said it helped protect local workers and fair working positions.

Because the subject of PLAs has brought on heavy doses of public comments, Cloquet Mayor Roger Maki implemented a rule at Tuesday’s meeting to restrict public comments to two people from each side of the argument, with each of them permitted to speak for three minutes.

Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council President Craig Olson commended councilors during Tuesday's meeting for asking questions and claimed that any future issues could easily be resolved by amending the PLA.

He said that by removing the union security portion of the PLA, the council had already effectively solved the current issue of litigation and urged them to keep the PLA in place.

Cloquet resident and former union worker Lee Anderson pleaded with the council to go in the opposite direction, citing that the city operated smoothly before a PLA was in place.

Cloquet resident and former union contractor Lee Anderson addresses the Cloquet City Council and residents at a meeting Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)
Cloquet resident and former union contractor Lee Anderson addresses the Cloquet City Council and residents at a meeting Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)

“It’s a direct subsidy to the unions. It’s not a benefit to the community,” he said. “It increases the cost of construction.”

City Administrator Tim Peterson suggested that the council repeal the PLA to benefit taxpayers, projects and private development. He said the compromise of implementing a prevailing wage, which had been suggested by Ward 4 Councilor Kerry Kolodge, could be considered, but that the PLA should be repealed either way.

Councilor at-large Lara Wilkinson agreed with Peterson, citing that she has noticed ongoing issues aside from the union security portion.

“I think there are a lot of terms to the PLA that might be reconsidered based on our experience,” she said.

Councilors in favor of keeping the PLA agreed to amend it as needed, but claimed that it served an essential purpose.

“I think that the PLAs are in favor of protecting the city on multiple levels,” Lamb said. “I just feel it’s the right thing to do.”

The final council vote to keep the PLA intact was met with applause from most residents in attendance, with Anderson being the only one who had voiced an opinion against the PLA.