Following a month of business and public pressure over the inclusion of union-friendly language in an airport concessionaire bid, City Council on Wednesday concurred with City staff recommendations to remove the controversial labor peace agreement clause.
An addendum to the request for proposals (RFP) was published Wednesday evening following lengthy discussion among council members and presentations by Troy Elliott, the City’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, and Economic Development Director Rene Dominguez on the City’s procurement, preference programs, and high-profile contracts processes.
“Our recommendation is that the labor peace agreement be removed,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said. “After consulting with the mayor and several council members who asked us to take another look and conduct a more public discussion, we further recommend a public policy discussion with regard to the labor peace agreement as well as the entire procurement process as a whole.”
Released Jan. 18, the original RFP called for the City to award one concessionaire the non-exclusive rights to operate or manage a combination of food, beverage, and retail concessions at the San Antonio International Airport.
But the RFP also required bidders to include in their proposal a labor peace agreement, which is an agreement between an employer and a union in which the employer agrees not to resist a union’s organizing attempts. Initially limited to San Francisco, labor peace agreements have spread rapidly in recent years and now exist in at least 11 states.
In recent weeks, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce led an effort with the North San Antonio Chamber, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber, and other groups to rally against the labor peace agreement in the RFP, calling it cost-prohibitive and unnecessary for area businesses. On Feb. 9, the City released an addendum to the RFP that allowed bidders to submit two separate proposals: one with a labor peace agreement, and one without.
On Wednesday, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and most city council members agreed to remove the clause altogether, acknowledging pressure from constituents and local business owners in their district, but called for more discussion.
“It would surprise most that the majority of City Council actions are about executing procurement contracts,” Nirenberg said. “So the work that is done to make sure it is as objective and non-political a process, that results in the best experience for the San Antonio taxpayers, is extraordinarily important.
“And that also we have our values baked into it – protections for workers, protections for advancements of local companies, the opportunity for small businesses to grow, all those things are part of the procurement process, which is why I also concur with the city manager about the recommendation about the airport concessions contract.”
The Council will take up the matter again at its March 7 session and consider a number of topics related to the procurement process, including a request by Councilman Ray Saldaña (D4) to look at living wages and one by Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) to consider a responsible bidder ordinance.
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“While this is great news, we do not think we are completely out of the woods based on the comments of City Council members during today’s meeting,” wrote San Antonio Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Richard Perez in a statement to members released after the City Council session. “We will continue to monitor this issue and be ready to act if it comes up again.”
District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse also spoke in favor of tossing the labor peace agreement and finding other ways to offer workplace protections through conversations with people on both sides of the issue.
“What we’ve learned is we didn’t allow people to be part of the process,” Brockhouse said. “It has to be labor and business. But we have to trust the business community. We can’t offer a blanket form of regulation across every form of business. The labor peace agreement issue has shown myself and the community that we have to stop legislating from the back door of City Hall. Labor needs to be part of the discussion. Business has to be at the table.”
Councilman John Courage (D9) opposed changing the RFP at this stage of the process. “By pulling it off and starting the conversation later, it kicks the can down the road when it’s something before us today,” he said.
“We should be talking about it more. I’m a proponent of labor unions, I’ve seen the good they do. I’m in a labor union. I also realize that if it wasn’t for the growth of labor unions in this country, we wouldn’t have had the middle class we’ve had. Now that’s slipping away.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has reported that labor peace agreements are an effort by unions to remain viable: “It is clear that unions will continue to push additional states and municipalities to adopt labor peace ordinances. For example, Unite Here, the union that represents hotel and hospitality workers, including those in airport concessions, has listed more than a dozen airports in which it would like to see labor peace agreements.”
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) said she supported the Hyatt hotel employee boycotts in 2015 with Unite Here.
“All of this is important … to talk about the San Antonio worker,” she said. “The labor peace agreement is an important issue that may or may not be the right thing to do. The problem is we don’t know, because we’ve not been having an open dialogue and not getting answers, and hearing from one side of the community.”