Chelsea Housing Shot Down by Council in Request to Relax Rules on Hiring Union Labor

By Seth Daniel

Union workers from Chelsea and the surrounding areas flooded the Council Chambers on Monday night to oppose a Home Rule Petition that would have allowed the Chelsea Housing Authority’s (CHA) redevelopment of Central Avenue to be outside of state union labor mandates – and councilors responded  shooting down the request by a 10-1 margin.

Council President Leo Robinson was the lone ‘yes’ vote.

“I think that was the right thing that happened in there,” said Rich Pedi of the Carpenters Union after the vote. “This would have been the first City in the Commonwealth that would have went against (the state union labor laws) with regards to prevailing wage and bidding laws. Why should Chelsea be the first one that gets started on? The Council voted its conscience and did the right thing.”

CHA Director Al Ewing said he was deeply disappointed, as they had officially requested in writing on Monday to simply delay the vote until May 22. He said there were things that could have been done and maybe some accommodations that could have been made to make the petition more palatable to everyone. He said they were not looking for a vote, but only professional courtesy to have time to work on the matter. They did not get that courtesy.

The vote to table the matter was quickly shot down 9-2 (with Councilors Leo Robinson and Judith Garcia voting to table). That was followed by the vote that ended the discussion.

“I was disappointed that the City Council was no willing to extend the courtesy to us to delay the vote, which is what we asked for in writing,” Ewing said. “I had spoken to some councillors and there were some things they wanted to see and we hoped to have some time to work on them. It’s unfortunate we weren’t given that professional courtesy. I was surprised by that and that’s why we didn’t have any of our supporters  at the meeting…The vote was taken and we will move on.”

The CHA is partnering with Corcoran Jennison on what would be a mixed-income redevelopment of the Innes Apartments on Central Avenue, putting 224 market rate units in a development that would also include 96 brand new public housing units to replace the current development. The $100 million project has been in the works for some time, but recently it became clear that the funding wasn’t going to be enough to accommodate a full union project. CHA and Corcoran had requested a Home Rule petition that would have given the project a waiver from state union labor rules. CHA officials said the petition approval was critical to the project, likely a make or break deal so that they could have an open shop for union and non-union contractors.

Some matters in that waiver, however, were troubling to councillors. Not only was the prevailing wage portion waived, but also state bidding laws, preferences for veterans, collective bargaining rights and a host of other matters contained in the state law.

Councillor Roy Avellaneda said he wants the project to get done, but he felt the ask was way too big given the other laws that would be waived.

“This isn’t just about the wages,” he said. “The rest of the law is about veteran preferences and resident preferences…I don’t want to see a blue state giving jobs to a guy coming up from a red state like Texas or Florida and taking the jobs that belong here.”

Councillor Dan Cortell said that he understood the tough position they were in, but he said there were too many other provisions in the waiver that would not stand up at the State House. He said in his discussions with the State Delegation, the waiver would likely not pass the State Legislature.

“As a City Councillor in Chelsea, I can’t do it,” he said. “I understand that because of the uno membership in our state, even if we were to pass it, the likelihood of it passing at the next level is very unlikely…At the end of the day, this is just too big of an ask.”

Councillor Matt Frank, like many others, said the Council was put in a bad position, where they were pitted between union workers and affordable housing.

“We’re in a really awkward position and we can’t really blame the Housing Authority,” he said. “They want to do good things. I’m not blaming the developer either because I don’t think it’s wrong to make money…At the end of the day, we need to make sure people are taken care of, that they can put food on the table and feel respected in their job. We need to let people know that’ what we stand for.”

Councillor Paul Murphy, who was one of four councillors who went on a tour of Innes and a Corcoran project in Lynn last Saturday, said he felt for the Housing Authority, but he couldn’t vote against the union.

“I’m a member of a union, my father is a member of the union, I’ve sat in on grievance hearings,” he said. “I have a hard time not going for this, but I’ve been a union member 17 years. I will, unfortunately for the housing authority, be voting ‘no’ on this.”

Robinson, who voted for both matters, said he felt bad for the 96 families who have been busy for the last six months planning for the redesign of their new housing units.

“My concern is the 96 families who are probably not going to have another opportunity to get into acceptable housing quarters,” he said. “They were only asking to move this to May 22. They just wanted some time.”

Meanwhile, most of the evening was consumed by scores of union members from the carpenters and painters union that testified that allowing the waiver was the first step to eliminating their protections.

“This isn’t a union issue; it’s about what is right,” said Tony Hernandez of the painter’s union. “You take away prevailing wage, then it will be insurance and benefits. You’re opening up the gate for more and for every other City to do this too.”

Afterward, Ewing would not say if the project would be abandoned. He said they’re going to step back from the matter, take some time away from it, and then come back to see if anything more can be done.

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