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Labor leaders, lawmakers rally to repeal ‘Death Star’ bill tying local governments’ hands

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Labor leaders, lawmakers rally to repeal ‘Death Star’ bill tying local governments’ hands

Sep 13, 2023 | 3:41 pm ET
By Kyle Davidson
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Labor leaders, lawmakers rally to repeal ‘Death Star’ bill tying local governments’ hands
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Berrien County Commissioner Chokwe Pitchford shared support for Democratic policies seeking to give local governments greater control over workforce and labor policies. | Kyle Davidson

Progress Michigan Executive Director Sam Inglot said the force was with workers, local government leaders and lawmakers on Wednesday as they rallied around bills that would repeal a ban on local project labor agreements (PLAs) and a law preempting local government control of labor and workforce policies — nicknamed the “Death Star” bill in an ode to “Star Wars.”. 

State lawmakers, local government leaders and labor representatives spoke out against these restrictions and their impact on both workers and local governments’ ability to compete with other communities, as well as other states, at a morning press conference near Lansing City Hall.

Earlier this year, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced bills that would repeal the local government preemption law and bans on local project labor agreements, allowing local governments to set their own labor standards, including higher-than-state minimum wage and other potential benefits.

Rep. Jenn Hill (D-Marquette), who previously served two terms in the Marquette City Commission, said the ban on project labor agreements sends a message to local governments: “We don’t trust you to make decisions on the behalf of the people who elected you.”

Labor leaders, lawmakers rally to repeal ‘Death Star’ bill tying local governments’ hands
Sam Inglot, the executive director of Progress Michigan spoke out against laws restricting local government control over labor and workforce standards, calling them “anti-worker” and “anti-voter.” | Kyle Davidson

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, these agreements are negotiated between construction unions and construction contractors to establish the terms and conditions of employment for construction projects. They are intended to ensure timely completion of projects at or under budget, provide employers with a reliable source of highly skilled workers, increase diversity and support equitable workforce development and improve worker health and safety while on the job.

Hill said the ban has driven down wage standards and quality of life in communities for years. 

“On the Marquette City Commission, it was my job to make sure that our roads and construction projects were completed safely, properly, on time and on budget,” Hill said. “ My goal has always been to provide quality services to residents while saving them money but we did not have that option when we were banned from using project labor agreements. It is time to give that option back to local governments.”

Alongside Hill, who sponsored House Bill 4231 to repeal the 2011 ban on project labor agreements, Rep. Joey Andrews’ (D-St. Joseph) House Bill 4237 would repeal the 2015 Local Government Labor Regulatory Limitation Act which preempts local government control over labor and workforce standards.

“Blanket rules set by the state do not have the effect of making our unique communities prosper in the way that we know our communities know best,” Andrews said.

“When they put this preemption in place, they made sure that cost of living adjustments could not be made for wages and for benefits in cities like Ann Arbor that have a significantly higher cost of living than other cities in northern Michigan. And that is not right,” he said.

Labor leaders, lawmakers rally to repeal ‘Death Star’ bill tying local governments’ hands
State Rep. Jenn Hill (D-Marquette) said bans on project labor agreements in local government have driven down wage standards and quality of life since becoming law. | Kyle Davidson

Repealing local preemption, would restore power to both communities and their residents, Andrews said. 

“It’s hard to change the federal government. It’s hard to change the state government, even though we did it last year. It is much easier to make change locally,” Andrews said.

“If your local elected officials aren’t representing you. You can unelect them, you can get yourself elected. We can change city and township governments, And as a result we can make fair wages in local communities that represent the cost of living,” he said.

Additionally, by allowing local governments to set their own labor policies, communities on the border would be able to better compete with neighboring states by setting local prevailing wages and minimum training and apprenticeship standards, Andrews said.

In the border communities he represents, Andrews said local contractors are frequently underbid by contractors from Indiana, to the point of local contractors no longer bidding on public projects. 

“I don’t like the race to the bottom mindset. … I think we can just raise the overall floor and if [Indiana contractors] want to play by our rules then fine, play by our rules, and if they don’t, then fine, stay home,” Andrews said. 

Additionally, repealing the laws limiting local control would help ensure communities of color can compete in the economy while allowing local leaders to make decisions that make the most sense for their communities, said Berrien County Commissioner Chokwe Pitchford.

“We don’t need people in the Legislature always telling us exactly where and when money should be spent. We know our communities better than you do. We hit the damn potholes every day,” Pitchford said. 

Labor leaders, lawmakers rally to repeal ‘Death Star’ bill tying local governments’ hands
State Rep. Joey Andrews (D-St. Joseph) said he was hopeful bills aimed at restoring local governments’ abilities to set labor and workforce policies would be passed before the end of the year. | Kyle Davidson

In addition to Hill’s and Andrews’ legislation, Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) also introduced bills — Senate Bills 170 and 171 — to repeal the local preemption and the ban on project labor agreements.

While Andrews is hopeful the Legislature will be able to pass the bills by the end of the year, he does not expect they will receive Republican support. 

“I think it’s unfortunate though, because the Republicans talk — and I think rightfully so in some cases — about the importance of local government, and it strikes me as somewhat hypocritical that they would support removing power from local governments,” Andrews said.

House Republican spokesperson Jeremiah Ward did not immediately respond to a request for comment.