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Some labor unions reluctant to back ’24 Olympics effort

Boston is still in the running to host 2024 Olympic Games
(Boston Globe) Boston is still a candidate as the United States Olympic Committee voted unanimously to bid for the 2024 Olympic Games but which city will not be chosen until next month.

When cheerleaders for a 2024 Boston Olympics tout the ways the Summer Games would benefit the region, they regularly mention how the spectacle would boost universities, rail service, and middle-class housing.

But there’s a core constituency that’s left off the list, one that would play a crucial role in pulling off such a complex undertaking – local labor unions.

Boston 2024 Partnership chairman John Fish promises he would put a project labor agreement in place to ensure that all Olympic-related construction is done by union workers if the city wins this high-stakes beauty contest.

Not all the trade unions are rushing to return the love. The Teamsters Local 25’s chief has pledged to marshal his forces, if necessary, to bring the Olympics here. But he seems to be an exception: Leaders of at least two other major local unions are saying they need more information, and several others are avoiding public comment altogether.

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The 2024 Olympics could represent the city’s biggest group of construction projects since the Big Dig. The estimated price tag of $4.5 billion would mean a bonanza for union work. There would also be billions of additional dollars in public infrastructure projects, and untold amounts of spending by local schools. (Organizers say the operating budget would be funded by Games-related revenue, not taxpayer dollars.)

As part of his effort to bring the Olympics here, Fish led a contingent to Redwood City, Calif., on Tuesday to lobby the US Olympic Committee. Los Angeles is a perceived front-runner among Boston and other rival cities San Francisco and Washington, D.C., for the US bid. The USOC expects to select the city in early 2015 but the ultimate international decision will take another two years.

Victor Matheson, economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, said that the economic impact of the Olympics can mean more losers than winners. Organized labor, he said, tends to come out on the winning side.

But Matheson said he can also see why union leaders would be reluctant to champion a Boston 2024 Olympics this early in the race. “You don’t want to be seen as the group that’s trying to steal money out of hard-working taxpayers’ dollars,” he said. “If I’m a typical union, I want to see that this is going to actually succeed before I throw my hat in. And I want to see that people actually like the project.”

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As chief executive of Suffolk Construction, Fish is known for turning to union labor for his many Boston-area projects. Fish said a project labor agreement would help ensure Olympics-related venues get built on time, without a hitch.

The Summer Games could create thousands of temporary jobs for the Boston area, and Fish said an agreement would ensure they support good-paying, middle-class wages.

“I would encourage a project labor agreement to be put in place,” Fish said. “I think that’s the best route for predictability, both on the cost side and on the schedule side.”

Teamsters Local 25 president Sean O’Brien is ready to go to battle for Fish’s cause.

The International Olympic Committee wants assurances that there is broad public support in the city that would host the Games. And the support of Local 25’s 11,000-person army of truck drivers, parking lot attendants, and others could play a crucial role.

“There’s no reason we would not be out promoting to help bring the Olympics to Boston in 2024,” O’Brien said, pointing to the extra jobs the Games would bring. “If we’re going to have to go out and lobby folks to get support, there’s no better partner to put boots on the ground than organized labor.”

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But other unions aren’t quite ready to enlist in Fish’s army. Mark Erlich, head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, said he’s impressed by efforts to develop a plan that won’t drain public coffers, but it’s a little premature for his membership to stake out a position on the 2024 Olympics.

“It seems like a good idea, but the devil is always in the details,” Erlich said. “If Boston was the US designated city, then I would assume the public discussion would be ratcheted up, and I’m sure we would participate.”

Leaders at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103 are even more circumspect.

“They’re very intrigued by the job opportunities that will exist but they have a lot more to learn about the proposal, and discussions have to happen internally before they would really want to comment on it,” said P.J. O’Sullivan, a spokesman for Local 103.

Fish also risks running afoul of the Merit Construction Alliance.

Ronald Cogliano, president of the nonunion contractors’ group, said a project labor agreement would be unfair to the majority of construction workers in the state who aren’t union members.

“We’ve got a small group of people picking winners and losers,” Cogliano said. “At the end of the day, you’re going to have construction projects that cost at least 20 percent more . . . and you’re going to have good hard-working people discriminated against because they don’t belong to a union.”

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As president of the UNITE HERE Local 26 service workers union, Brian Lang wouldn’t directly benefit from a project labor agreement for construction work.

But Lang said Olympics organizers could craft a “labor peace agreement” that ensures unionized janitors and concessions workers are hired and paid decent wages: “The last thing we need, if the Olympics are here, are demonstrations and strikes, and people walking off the job over labor issues.”

That said, Local 26 doesn’t seem to be in a rush to take a stand on whether the Olympics should come to Boston. “There’s a handful of rich people who have thought that it makes sense and they’re discussing it amongst themselves,” Lang said. “I’m not opposed to that. [But] I would prefer a much more open process where there gets to be real discussions and debate.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonChesto.