With the encouragement of local and national labor leaders. Washington area building trades unions appear close to signing a unique contract in which they will agree not to strike and will give up other rights and benefits while working on the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of the city's West End neighborhood.
Builders and developers of this large-scale residential and commercial project say that such an agreement is needed to avoid soaring construction costs and the kind of work stoppages that have caused huge cost overruns on the Metro subway project. If the agreement falls through, they say, their alternative is to hire nonunion labor.
One AFL-CIO official said the agreement, unprecedented nationally for a large-scale construction project, would inevitably influence future collective bargaining in the building trades industry. But, he added, "this is not necessarily a bad thing."
"This is not a negative 'giving-up' but a positive, forward-looking approach" that unions elsewhere could learn from according to Joe Maloney, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department.
Both the developers and unions were reluctant to discuss specifics because, as one put it, "things are in a very sensitive stage." According to reports, 23 of 27 unions involved "have signed or have decided to sign." Those who favor the agreement said they hope that all 27 unions will have signed by next Wednesday.
Some union members expressed concern that the proposal "takes away everything that the proposal "takes away everything the unions have been striving to achieve." But at the same time they feel they have little alternative.
According to Richard Getsinger, senior vice president the George Hyman construction firm, a builder of West End. "The real intent and purpose of the thin is to make the union contractor and union tradesmen competitive compared to nonunion labor) in the marketplace.
"As a union contractor, we've seen ourselves losing work in the past 10 years of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] some of the open shop people, particularly in the residential construction market. We feel like we have to face this, all of us, together. Unions and management are working together not as adersaries on this."
Getsinger as well as some labor officials, expressed the opinion that some of the work practices that have been standardized over the years are in some ways productive."
"The West End project is a massive benefit to the city, the largest privately financed project we've had in many years and a boom to a depressed industry," said John Quackenbush, secretary-treasurer of the Washington Building Trades Council, which coordinates the activities of the unions locally but, he added, "with the international unions calling the shots."
"We want to see this project work, we want to keep nonunion out of it, and we're willing to make concessions," Quackenbush said. "When somebody comes along with $500 million and eight years employment, we're all ears."
A consortium of Washington business men led by developer Oliver T. Carr Jr. proposed the West End project in 1973 for a 100-acre area between Washington Circle and Georgetown. If the plan is realized, it will include some 4,500 new residential units, 2.5 million square feet of office space and 107,000 square feet of retail space, according to the District's planning office.
The Carr company plans to begin work on the first phase of the West End development at 26th and Pennsylvania within about two weeks, with Hyman as the contractor, according to Carr's son. Robert, who is project manager.
Concerning Hyman's proposal to the unions, Robert Carr said, "I'm interested in the best quality construction for the lowest price . . . We've done a lot of work with union contractors in the past, and we've liked their work, but the costs are escalating and we're trying to put a product on the market as a salable price . . . I think the unions have an obligation to do what they can to see that developers can do this."
He said the Carr company has about $65 million worth of projects in the active planning or development stages for the West End area, "and we hope eventually to build many more than that."
Hyman's proposal "shocked me," said ironworker Mike Duffy, 24, of Rockville, who is a member of Local 201 of the Reinforcing Ironworkers Union. "It throws our (existing) agreement in the trash can. But, like everybody's saying, what choice do we have? If we don't sign, they'll just hire nonunion."
Duffy's union is among those that as of Friday had to decide whether to sign the agreement or not.
Besides prohibiting strikes or walks outs, the proposal also reportedly call for standardized works hours, uniform holidays, gives the contractor the right to decide how many many men are required for given jobs, and cuts back overtime benefits from double-time pay to time and a half.
There have been "countless" such agreements to assure uninterrupted work on certain kinds of industrial projects, nuclear facilities and the like, the AFL-CIO's Maloney said. But this would be the first, as far as he knew, involving a commercial-residential project.
"Of course this agreement will influence future collective bargaining" he said. Contractors are "liable to ask for things they might not otherwise have asked for."
But, Maloney added, some of the elements of existing union agreements are probably outmoded and "it might be best to eliminate them . . ." He noted the advantages to the contractor of avoiding the sort of work stoppages that plagued the Metro system.
"And take the double-line issue. That was originally supposed to be a penalty to avoid the overtime, to prevent the men from working longer hours and to keep more people working their 40 hours a week. Unfortunately, along the line, people got the idea that this was a reward factor."
He said the agreement's acceptance would not necessarily be the result of "today's economics, and the large unemployment in the (construction) industry," but is a way to help contractors. "I would hope that other cities embarking on revitalizing inner city areas would trysimilar things."