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Union efforts to expand use of project labor agreements on major construction projects were dealt a setback this week when the Buffalo Board of Education rejected the notion of using one when it builds its next new school.

But the issue appears far from settled.

Labor officials say they will reapproach the board in an effort to persuade it to adopt an agreement for the construction of the new Northwest Academy, a $23 million facility off Military Road scheduled to break ground this winter.

School Board President Marlies Wesolowski, who cast the deciding vote this week against consideration of an agreement, said later she's willing to hear the unions again.

"The vote doesn't preclude us from doing a PLA. I'm always open to listening to both sides of the issue," Mrs. Wesolowski said. "I was really on the fence. It could be that if someone could show me some compelling reasons, I might be convinced to do something else."

The 5-4 vote supporting Superintendent James Harris' recommendation to not consider an agreement for the project highlighted sharp divisions not only among board members but between Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve and the construction trade unions.

Eve has previously been a strong proponent of the agreements but has reversed himself recently, saying minorities and women aren't getting enough jobs and contracts under the arrangements, a contention the unions dispute.

The agreements, used in private construction projects for years, are being employed in a growing number of publicly financed projects. Roswell Park was expanded under such an agreement, as was a substantial portion of the new airport.

A project labor agreement establishes work rules, coordinates work schedules, provides grievance and arbitration procedures and guarantees no strikes. Minority hiring and contract goals usually are included in side agreements.

The Merit Construction Alliance, a collection of local non-union contractors, doesn't like project labor agreements. It maintains they invite legal challenge and drive up costs by limiting flexibility and inhibiting competition.

But Daniel Boody, president of the Buffalo Building Trades Council, noted that Roswell Park, the airport and Marine Midland Arena, also built under such an agreement, all will be completed on time and on budget.

Harris, in his recommendation to the board, echoed positions taken by the Merit Alliance. Harris also said that the district's employment and job-training goals could be achieved without an agreement, by building them into the bid specifications, a strategy Boody later said would be thwarted by unscrupulous contractors unless an agreement was in place.

Eve, in remarks to the board, termed minority and female hiring on the airport project "a disaster" and said the unions have "failed miserably" to show a genuine commitment to diversify their ranks.

"I don't trust the unions," he said in an interview later.

Boody countered that "the unions can be trusted because the unions have a track record."

Boody said minority and female hiring goals of 25 percent were met at the arena and at Roswell.

Eve cited a newspaper story from February to bolster his contention that minority employment at the airport fell short of the goals. But officials of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority said this week those numbers have improved since then.

Eve also presented the board with a summary showing the racial makeup of eight of the 16 unions that make up the Building Trades Council, including some of the largest ones such as the electricians, carpenters and brick layers. That summary showed that the number of minorities working as journeymen and apprentices has increased 48 percent since 1990 and account for 7.6 percent of the membership in those unions.

At-large Member James Williams and Ferry District Board Member Florence Johnson said Eve's opposition to the agreement influenced their stances.

"For him to say he's no longer in support has to mean something to me," Williams said. "We have to listen. He knows what he's talking about."

For at-large Member John Doyle, a project labor agreement is a matter of keeping money in the local economy and providing young workers, including city high school graduates, with the best opportunities for job training. All the trade unions run certified apprenticeship programs; few non-union companies do.

"Are you going to shut the door on top-paying jobs?" Doyle asked his colleagues.

Doyle ended up at the short end of the vote, along with Anthony Luppino of the West District, Jack Coyle of the Park District and Helene Kramer, an at-large member.

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