The Cheektowaga Central School Board voted Monday night to negotiate a project labor agreement with area craft unions for $19 million in building construction approved by voters in December.
A large turnout by union workers turned the tide.
When deliberations began, four board members -- a majority -- said they planned to vote against negotiating a labor agreement, while only one member voiced support. Board members said they had been doing their homework on the issue for the last two months.
But after an hour of freewheeling discussion with a standing-room-only crowd of union leaders and workers, the board voted, 4 to 2, with one abstention, to negotiate a labor agreement.
The deciding vote came from the leader of the opposition to that point, Trustee Richard D. Jachimiak. He said his mind was changed by what the audience had to say.
Supporters of project labor agreements say they prevent strikes and work slowdowns, get work done on time and within budget, provide flexibility in the use of union and nonunion contractors and train minority and female workers.
Critics contend that most local contractors are nonunion and will not bid on projects with an agreement, thereby eliminating competition and driving up construction costs.
The board's vote sets in motion the negotiation process. Once an agreement is reached, it will still be subject to independent analysis to determine the extent of any savings, officials said.
Jachimiak began Monday's debate by asserting that labor agreements discourage nonunion contractors from bidding and cost more than they save. He said that just negotiating the agreement will cost about $30,000 and that he has seen no evidence that an agreement will save the district even that amount.
"If you take nonunion contractors out of the bidding process, it's very difficult to measure" actual savings, Jachimiak said.
Daniel M. Boody, president of the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council, said he was tired of hearing that labor agreements restrict competition.
Boody said bids from nonunion contractors were submitted on all the area public-works projects covered by labor agreements, including Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the new Erie County Courthouse and Northwest Academy. Nonunion contractors also won some of the work, he said.
For each of them, the savings attributed to the labor agreement were "substantial" -- far more than the $30,000 negotiating cost Jachimiak said he was worried about recouping, Boody said. Boody told Cheektowaga officials that while it is true that nonunion workers have to pay union dues on a project with a labor agreement, those workers also receive union representation and benefits along with guarantees of being paid prevailing wages.
Protection against strikes or work slowdowns will be especially important next year when the contracts of nine area craft unions will expire, Boody warned.
Cheektowaga officials were particularly interested in Boody's assurances that a labor agreement would mean the establishment of a preapprentice program for high school graduates interested in a building skills in trades.
When Monday's deliberations began, Trustee Janice Kowalski-Kelly was the only board member who said she was in favor of negotiating a labor agreement.
"I'm from a union family," she explained. Unions safeguard "fair working conditions," she said, and are one reason for the nation's prosperity.
In the final vote, Kowalski-Kelly was joined by board President Raymond L. Carr, Trustee Diane Panasiewicz and, finally, by Jachimiak, who had passed on the first roll call.
Voting no were board Vice President Jane P. Okun and Trustee Jeffrey K. Speaker, while Trustee David J. Martin Jr. abstained. Earlier in the session, Jachimiak, Okun, Martin and Speaker announced their intentions to vote against negotiating a labor agreement.