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Under pressure, Mass. Senate creates panel to help ensure $400 million soldiers’ home project includes minority-owned firms

State Senator Paul R. Feeney, proposed a bill to help ensure that women and minority-owned firms are involved in the state's $400 million veterans home plan in Holyoke.
State Senator Paul R. Feeney, proposed a bill to help ensure that women and minority-owned firms are involved in the state's $400 million veterans home plan in Holyoke.Handout

Facing pressure from Black-owned businesses, the Massachusetts Senate on Thursday passed a $600 million bill that effectively requires a new state soldiers’ home be built using collective bargaining, but while under the watch of a new committee to help ensure it involves women and minority-owned firms — and bars bidders who’ve failed to hire enough in the past.

The unusual stipulation, proposed by state Senator Paul R. Feeney and overwhelmingly adopted in the chamber, injected a new dimension to the debate over plans for the state’s new $400 million veterans home in Holyoke.

The Massachusetts House, in passing its own version this month, attached language requiring the project include a labor agreement. Such a pact ensures that, regardless if the winning contractor is a union or non-union shop, all employees on the job are “union members” working under the rules of that agreement, according to Feeney. Under state law, state construction contracts are also supposed to include “participation goals” for minority and women workers.

But non-union contractors have complained that such labor pacts discourage them from even bidding, and the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts wrote to legislative leaders on Wednesday arguing that however well-intentioned they are, the labor agreements usually require contractors to hire solely from union halls, where “most Black construction workers and other workers of color do not belong.”

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In practice, a project labor agreement — known as a PLA — can also shut out minority-owned construction firms, which are often nonunionized, from using their own workforce, wrote Segun Idowu, the Boston-based group’s president and chief executive.

The track record isn’t kind. In Boston, for example, Black- and Latino-owned firms landed just 1.2 percent of the $2.1 billion in contracts for construction and professional goods and services that the city awarded over a five-year span, according to a city-commissioned report.

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“Our members have expressed frustration at being shut out time and time again from participating in construction projects that have PLAs due to these restrictive provisions,” Idowu wrote.

The Senate amendment sought to address that. While the chamber’s initial version of the soldiers’ home bill excluded any requirement for a project labor agreement, Feeney’s amendment restored the language, but added a new condition: That a new diversity and inclusion committee be created to help shape goals for hiring minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses for the project. The committee would meet monthly to both implement and ensure the project meets those targets.

Under the Senate provision, the state must also make technical assistance grants available to help “socially and economically disadvantaged businesses” in the bidding process. And any bidder that regularly failed to meet diversity hiring goals on past state projects would be barred for winning a contract.

“Whether you’re open shop [or a] union shop, it doesn’t matter: If you’re not able to reach these goals, we don’t want you on the job,” said Feeney, a Foxboro Democrat.

The Senate adopted the amendment by a 37-3 margin, with only one Democrat — Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, the chamber’s budget chairman — voting against the change. (A spokesman for Rodrigues did not respond to questions Thursday about why.)

The bill later passed unanimously.

The Massachusetts Building Trades Council, while arguing that project labor agreements don’t exclude minorities, said it supports Feeney’s amendment. The Black Economic Council also applauded the changes, calling them a step in the right direction toward ensuring Black-owned contractors aren’t shut out in helping build not only the new soldiers’ home but other major projects.

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“This a down payment,” said Samuel Gebru, the council’s director of policy and public affairs. “In terms of piecemeal [solutions], we see this as a win. But we’re just getting started. . . . It’s not the systemic solution.”

Non-union builders were less pleased. Jason Kauppi, president for the Merit Construction Alliance of Massachusetts, argued that the existence of a labor agreement, even one draped “in the flag of inclusion and diversity,” still shuts out those who aren’t unionized.

“This was pure politics to remove competition,” he said.

Lawmakers and Governor Charlie Baker say they’re both committed to finishing a borrowing bill to fund a new soldiers’ home after COVID-19 ravaged the facility last spring. More than 70 veterans died in one of the country’s worst outbreaks at the time, and one that was fueled, investigators later found, by a series of “utterly baffling” mistakes by the home’s then-managers.

But it remains to be seen whether the project labor agreement language will become a sticking point. The Senate and the House will have to reconcile that and other differences in the two versions of the bill, including the overall price tag. The House’s version is $200 million less than the Senate’s.

It wasn’t immediately clear Thursday whether the leaders in the House, which passed its version unanimously, would embrace the Senate’s changes.

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“The Speaker believes there’s a way to do both: promote good union jobs and provide opportunities to people of color, women, and veterans,” Ana Vivas, a Mariano spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The Baker administration has been cooler to any inclusion of a PLA. The governor did not include the requirement when he originally filed his $400 million bill, and one of his deputies told lawmakers this month that state officials believe such labor pacts create “less opportunity” for minority- and women-owned firms by limiting the pool of subcontractors who can participate in the project.

“This will have a negative impact,” said Carol Gladstone, the commissioner of the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, at the April 5 legislative hearing.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.