The Electrical Worker online
January 2021

Tide of Persistence, Unity
Brings PLAs Ashore in Honolulu
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Six years after Damien Kim began hounding Honolulu's mayor to live up to his promise to support project labor agreements, the matter of PLAs finally landed on the City Council's 2019 summer agenda.

By then, the longtime business manager of Local 1186 was also president of the Honolulu Building & Construction Trades Council. Since taking office that January, he'd been accelerating his mission.

Kim knew it was vital for the city's trades to present a united front. That wasn't always the case: HBCTC and a much smaller, breakaway alliance of construction unions were sometimes at odds.

His bridge-building worked. Members of both organizations, from the IBEW to the Operating Engineers to the city's 16 other trade unions, put their solidarity on display at every hearing on Bill 37.

Its passage would ensure that big-ticket municipal projects carried the union label, including a planned concert hall, new sports arena and a multibillion-dollar overhaul of Honolulu's wastewater system.

Tradesworkers sat and stood shoulder to shoulder in packed galleries. They sported work shirts with union logos, held signs championing good jobs and skilled labor, and warmed up for at least one hearing by chanting "Union! Union! Union!" before the council entered.

They dwarfed the other construction workers who showed up — sullen groups in shirts bearing the insignia of nonunion contractors and carrying signs calling for the ouster of the union-friendly councilman who introduced the PLA bill.

"You could see the jealously," Kim said. Or as his organizer, Leyton Torda, put it, "Sour grapes." He chuckled thinking back on one hearing in particular:

"One of the nonunion guys — he wasn't an electrician, he was from another trade — he came up to testify and he was like, 'This bill is terrible. My company's not going to get work. Union guys are going to get the work. They get all the benefits. They get holiday pay….'"

Torda was thinking, "Yeah, you're right, we do. That's the reason you join a union."

The overflow crowd — pre-COVID-19 — made it hard to move around, but Torda saw someone on the aisle get up as the man returned to his seat.

"He was from one of the other unions and held out a business card. He said, 'Brother, we can provide all that for you. Just join us.' The guy took the card."

HONOLULU City Council members saw past an ocean of bitter opposition — a lopsided amount of it, Kim said, from electrical contractors — and voted 7-2 in favor of PLAs in October 2019.

There turned out to be more hurdles, but the building trades had argued a winning case on the strength of their unrivaled training, expert workmanship and fierce attention to safety. Their track record on public and private projects, including many of the beachfront hotels lining Waikiki, was in plain sight.

If that wasn't enough to sway council members, the bill had strong economic appeal by specifying that contractors use at least 80% local labor on PLA projects.

That's a game-changer, said Kim and HBCTC Executive Director Gino Soquena, who was instrumental in forging the coalition between their organization and the Hawaii Construction Alliance.

"For too long, nonunion companies, especially big ones from the mainland, have been bidding on, winning, and performing work here and then taking the money outside of the state," Soquena said.

The ordinance covers public projects costing at least $2 million. Because Honolulu is a city/county governing Oahu, it applies to the entire island.

Nonunion employers can still submit winning bids for major projects, but they'll need to hire from the existing union workforce or sign a union contract with their own crews.

A parade of angry contractors testified that the bill would doom them, insisting they couldn't afford union labor.

Soquena and Kim listened with disgust. It was a straw-man argument: Hawaii's prevailing wage law already required the same minimum pay for all construction workers, union or not.

"It's not going to cost contractors one cent," Soquena said. "All these companies saying it's going to put them out of business. No. No. No. You can bid on the job. You can be the low bidder."

Kim politely approached the owners of a small, family-run electrical business. "I said, 'Look, you're bidding the same work that our guys are bidding. Everyone has to pay the prevailing wage. How is this going to be different? Why are you guys arguing this point?'"

They didn't have a good answer. Kim chalked it up to what seemed like a hearing-room epidemic of willful ignorance about the state's 65-year-old prevailing wage law.

But decades of experience told him and Soquena that some of their adversaries had darker motives — fear that they'd no longer get away with wage theft, worker misclassification, and safety shortcuts on the job.

"Some of them cheat," Soquena said. "With this law, it prevents them from doing that."

THE BILL was revised after the 2019 vote and sent back to the council for more hearings in 2020. City attorneys advised Mayor Kirk Caldwell not to sign the first version, saying it infringed on the power of the executive branch to procure and negotiate contracts, and could put federal funds at risk.

The changes didn't favor labor, but unions still saw the final bill as a victory. "It's a win for our side," Kim said. "The city never had any language like this before."

Once it passed, the city and building trades negotiated the nuts and bolts of PLAs, or what the ordinance formally calls community workforce agreements.

At the contract's signing ceremony last July, Caldwell heralded it as the "first time ever in the history of Hawaii that we all come together under one roof for our working men and women in construction."

But getting there was a bumpy ride.

Running for mayor in 2012, Caldwell pledged to the IBEW and other trade unions that he'd make PLAs a reality. He won their endorsements, then let them down.

"I've been working on this with him for almost eight years," Kim said in November. "The first term he didn't do anything."

When Kim and another union leader pressed him on it, the mayor balked. "There's plenty of time," he told them. It didn't go over well.

"We got into a little tiff and we didn't back him in 2016," Kim said. Caldwell won anyway.

"He wouldn't really give us the time of day," Kim said, then added with a laugh, "But Hawaii is a small place."

Caldwell was a regular at a restaurant where Kim's sister works. One day she called her brother, saying 'The mayor was here. How come he's mad at you? Are you mad at him?'"

Kim soon saw him at groundbreaking ceremony. "I walked up and put my arms around his shoulders. I said, 'I don't hate you, you're a great guy. It's just that you lied to me.'"

THEY MENDED fences, and Caldwell set about making good on his promise.

But none of the potential PLAs came into play before his second term ended Jan. 2, when newly elected mayor Rick Blangiardi was sworn in.

Most of the building trades, including Local 1186, hadn't endorsed Blangiardi, a TV executive who'd never run for office before 2020.

Kim was concerned. Under the revised, weaker PLA bill, the mayor had the power to decide for each project whether the ordinance would be enforced or not.

Now a new, untested mayor would hold all the cards. Two weeks after the election, Kim invited him to a meeting at the local's headquarters.

"He did poke me a little for not supporting him," Kim said. "But the meeting turned out better than expected."

Blangiardi was good-natured and didn't appear to hold a grudge, telling him, Soquena, Torda and the others that he's "all for" PLAs, union labor and "anything I can do to drive this economy."

Time will tell, Kim said, but "the way he's speaking right now is very positive."

So much so that when he asked Blangiardi about lowering the floor for PLAs to $1 million projects, "he said he's willing to go even lower."

Looking ahead, Kim wants to work toward PLAs on Hawaii's other islands, efforts that will require the same spirit of unity that succeeded in Honolulu.

"This bill shows that we can work together and what happens when we do work together," he said.


The A'Ali'i Residential Condominium in Kakaako in Honolulu's popular waterfront district of Ala Moana is one of the many highly visible private and public projects built by Local 1186 members.


Honolulu Local 1186 hosted a small meeting in November with new Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi, who expressed support for the PLA ordinance passed under the city's previous mayor. From left to right are Brandon Wolff (ILWU); Leroy Chincio, Honolulu Local 1260 business manager; Damien Kim, Local 1186 business manager and president of the Honolulu Building & Construction Trades Council; Blangiardi, who took office Jan. 2; Gino Soquena, HBCTC executive director; Will Chang (ILWU); and Local 1186 organizers Leyton Torda and Michael Pacheco.


Local 1186 wiremen work on a residential / commercial building against Honolulu's mountainous backdrop, a landscape filled with public and private projects wired by IBEW members.


Local 1186 Business Manager Damien Kim testifies in 2019 at one of the hearings that led the Honolulu City Council to pass a project labor agreement ordinance.