Washington building trades unions have agreed not to strike and have given up other long held rights and benefits while working on a half-billion dollar redevelopment of the city's West End neighborhood, representatives of the unions and a major builder announced yesterday.
The agreement between George Hyman Construction Co. and the Washington Building Trades Council, believed to be unprecedented for a project of this kind, comes after four months of sometimes emotional negotiations.
It clears the way for construction to begin, possibly this week, on the first phase of the private redevelopment of the neighborhood just east of Georgetown. The extensive West End project is planned to include residential and commercial construction in an area now filled with old row houses, warehouses and vacant land.
Two of Washington's 27 building trades unions - the ironworkers and painters locals - have refused to sign the agreement, according to one labor spokesman, but negotiations with them are continuing. The international union for the ironworkers has sent a telegram to the builder stating that it will involve itself in the matter.
One reason the unions entered the agreement was "to allow contractors employing these trades to become more competitive in residential work, which has been going more and more to nonunion contractors in outlying Washington metropolitan areas," according the announcement.
The Hyman firm had told the unions that it would hire nonunion labor if such an agreement could not be worked out.
In addition to assuring the developer that the work will not be interrupted by labor disputes, the agreement also calls for standardized work hours, uniform holidays and overtime. It eliminates formal coffee breaks, cuts back overtime benefits from double time to time-and-one-half pay and gives the contractor the right to decide how many workers are required for given jobs. In the past, unions could decide how many workers were required.
The reactions of rank-and-file union members ranged from reluctant acceptance to outrage. Union leaders, however, described the agreement as a forward-looking approach, which is necessary not only to make unions competitive with nonunion labor but also to boost the depressed construction industry in this area.
"We feel this is a great beginning, the first time since the riots that we've had private money for the inner city like this," said John Quackenbush, secretary-treasurer of the Council.
Labor spokesmen and spokesmen for area contractors agreed that the West End agreement could set a pattern for future collective bargaining.
While such no-strike agreements are common in certain kinds of industrial projects, such as nuclear plants, labor leaders believe this to be the first involving a major commercial-residential project.
Some union members threatened not to honor the West End agreement. "I'd rather see this whole job go nonunion than go along with that agreement," said George P. Wagner, Jr., 46, a metal lathe operator currentlly at work on the construction at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
A 30-year-old union man who comes from a union family, Wagner maintained that the concessions in the agreement are a "giant step backward after 90 years of union struggle."
Kenny Simon, a young metal lathe operator working on the National Visitor Center, said he would work under the agreement if it was signed and legal - "but it will be under protest."
Some union members said they felt concessions in certain outmoded work practices should be made but that it should-be, as one put it "through negotiations with the contractors, not through an ultimatum, which is what this was."
Some union leaders who favored the agreement termed it a calculated risk. "It may be that they (the workers) are happy about this thing now, with unemployment over 40 per cent in the industry, but if there's a boom, if, for instance, the federal government pours some huge sum in here, they may say, hey, dummy, why'd you do that," said Lewis Pugh, who signed the agreement for about 6,000 carpenters in the area after their board voted for it.
"What this agreement means is that we're in a different time now," Pugh said. "It means there is going to be a different atmosphere on this job. It means management and labor are going to cooperate."
The worse thing that could happen now, Pugh said, "is that our people don't understand the agreement. Most carpenters, for instance have misinterpreted the no-coffee break clause. A man can still take a thermos of coffee on the job with him and stop to drink it. What this clause eliminates is shutting down the job for 15 minutes or more while people form long lines to get coffee."
According to another union leaders who favored the agreement, union members who have been fighting it "are not thinking about their brothers who are out of work."
Experts think many unions whose contracts come up for renewal this year are likely to follow the steelworkers' lead and push hard for various forms of layoff insurance. This is mainly because of the 1973-75 recession, the effects of which continue to be felt. Unemployment was higher in 1975 - when it reached 9 per cent - than at any time since the Depression. The unemployment rate was 7.3 per cent in January and remains a major issue.
Steel is one of several major industries in which there will be bargaining this year. Among the others are the coal and telephone industries. Major contracts up for renegotiation cover 4.9 million workers.
Spokesman for nonunion contractors in the area said they favor the approach taken in the agreement, but for all contractors not just Hyman. They described it as a "sweetheart" agreement.
They also predicted that Hyman would have difficulty enforcing the no-strike provisions of the agreement.
"The unions still are looking for a quick fix, when what they need is to reform the whole collective bargaining process," said Scott Robertson, of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), whose local chapter represents around 300 Washington area nonunion or "merit shop" contractors. ("Merit shop" means using union as well as nonunion labor based on lowest competitive bids.)
The nonunion labor force working on high-rise residential construction in the District has risen from 46 per cent in 1973 to 79 per cent in 1976, according to Bruce Stauffer, president of the Washington Chapter of ABC.
This shift is part of a national trend, with "more than 50 per cent of national industrial-commercial building being done open shop," Robertson said.
Robertson said that, in many cases, union and nonunion laborers are the same people. "The union guys put their union cards in their pockets and go to work for the nonunion contractors. They go where the work is."
Union members maintain that they are better trained and have a higher standard of performance than their nonunion counterparts. ("A union rodman would never sit down to tie those rods, but nonunion guys do it," said one. As a result, they say, union labor is more cost-efficiet in the long run.
Nonunion spokesman counter that their labor is more diversified. ("A carpenter may screw in a lightbulb rather than waiting for an electrician to do it.") as a result, they say, nonunion labor is more efficient.
The plan for the West End project, which was drawn up in an unusual alliance of private developers and District planners, was designed to transform a 100-acre area that planners have called the "hole in the doughnut." This is a nondecript area between the thriving communities of Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, Dupont Circle and downtown.
A group of Washington businessment led by developer Oliver T. Carr Jr. proposed the West End project in 1973. If the plan is realized, it will include about 4,500 new residential units, 2.5 million square feet of office space and over 100,000 feet of retail space, according to the District's planning office.
The project is expected to replace parking lots, vacant buildings, warehouses and scattered dwellings with a community of high-rise apartments and offices. "It is a way to hold the line on major commercial development west of New Hampshire and move that to the east, a way to encourage walk-to-work housing around the core," according to one city planner.
Shovels will break ground on the first building in the project - a nine-story office building at the corner of 26th and Pennsylvania NW - soon, "this week, we hope," according to Robert Carr, son of the developer and project manager for the first phase. That building is scheduled for completion in 18 months.
Carr emphasized that this is a complex development, not a single project, and "there is no commitment to any one construction company for any amount of work. We are committed to Hyman as the contractor for this first phase and probably will work with him in the future."
Carr said his company is "interested is having the best possible relationship with unions and getting the best job for the money. I would say it is in the best interest of the unions to enter this sort of agreement in the future if they want to work on the West End project."