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A gala grand opening of the new Erie County Family Courthouse Friday turned into a strident union protest against County Executive Joel A. Giambra's stance on union labor.

"P-L-A," chanted union protesters who were gathered near the steps of the new courthouse on Franklin Street as Giambra made brief remarks to the crowd of invited guests. They were referring to a project labor agreement. Some of the more than 100 union members carried signs; others had bullhorns.

"Our message today to him is that he's inciting labor unrest -- and he's going to get it," said Daniel Boody, head of the 10,000-member Building and Construction Trades Council.

Union protesters kept a respectful silence during the remarks of Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, who maintain positions friendly to unions and project labor agreements.

The union protest was in response to Giambra's statement earlier this week that he wants to reopen discussion on an existing PLA governing work to renovate and reconstruct Old County Hall, the County Hall Annex and a third county court building.

The current PLA favors union firms in contract bidding, the Giambra administration maintains.

The administration says the new court renovation project, due to begin soon, will cost an estimated $45 million.

Giambra delivered his remarks despite the disturbances during the one-hour grand opening ceremony Friday. Shortly afterward, he called reporters to his office to repeat his position on the PLA issue.

"I'm not angry. This is a job where you can't please 100 percent of the people all of the time," Giambra said of the protesters. "It's about time this county had a healthy debate on this subject."

But Giambra said he doesn't agree with union leaders' claims that reopening the existing PLA will result in a shoddy renovation job, unfair treatment of women and minorities and labor unrest.

"A PLA doesn't guarantee that. Effective monitoring of existing laws guarantees that," said Giambra, a Republican.

Giambra's stance on PLAs has developed since January, when he told city leaders he would not put up a pledged $5 million in county money for the billion-dollar Buffalo Public Schools construction project unless the project is open to non-union contractors.

Giambra said Friday that he was "very disappointed" that union members chose to make their point during the dedication ceremony for the county's $34 million new family courthouse.

"I'd like to see them not picketing here,
but doing something more productive with their time," Giambra said.

The family courthouse was built under the terms of a 1999 PLA signed by the unions and Giambra's predecessor, Dennis T. Gorski. It is that PLA Giambra wants reopened for discussion.

The new family courthouse is now open for business despite a lack of hot water in bathrooms and faucets throughout the building.

Officials in the county's Public Works Department said the problem, involving the operation of valves in the water system, is being fixed. The final certificate of occupancy for the building has not yet been issued, meaning that whatever problems crop up will be handled immediately, the officials said.

"It's not a health and safety issue of any magnitude," said Maria C. Lehman, county public works commissioner. "It's an ongoing issue with a building under construction."

Union members and leaders said their priority right now is making Giambra see the depth of their dissatisfaction with his stance on union labor.

Dan Degenhart, 40, a union electrician from Orchard Park, said his 12 1/2 years as a non-union contractor taught him the benefits of union work -- the hard way. Degenhart said he has been in a union for six years now.

"He's made a lot of false statements," Degenhart said of Giambra. "The one that really rang home for me is that it would cost taxpayers a lot more money to go union."

Pat Lyons, a leader of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, said the message was sent to Giambra loud and clear.

"We are in opposition to his position and we want to let him know," Lyons said. "His remarks on relinquishing the PLA on the project is not sitting well with the unions and building trades."

Boody, the council president, said the union decided on Wednesday to organize the protest and managed to get a large crowd together in a short period of time.


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