Kane County Democrats succeed in push for union labor in county construction projects

Kane County Board members a considering a property tax increase of 3.5% or 5% as part of the 2023 budget. If approved, it would be the first increase in the county's portion of the local property tax bill in a decade

Kane County Democrats have muscled through changes in who can receive taxpayer dollars for county construction work.

The new rules -- long fought against by Kane County Republicans -- will require apprenticeship training for all workers on county construction projects.

Trade unions have a near-monopoly on those apprenticeship programs, meaning any county construction contract worth more than $30,000 must use union workers starting in 2024.

With Kane County Democratic Party Chair Mark Guethle watching from the front row of the audience, Democrats greenlit the changes with only seven “no” votes coming from the 24-member board. Democrats won an unbeatable majority on the board last November for the first time in recent history.

Guethle is also an officer in the local painters union.

The new policy is known as a Responsible Bidder Ordinance. State law requires that public construction contracts be awarded to the company with the lowest responsible bid. There is no ambiguity when it comes to the cheapest price tag. But there’s some wiggle room when it comes to the idea of what is a “responsible” bidder.

With the new changes, if the cheapest bid on a county construction project does not use workers who have completed apprenticeship programs, officials can award the contract to a more expensive bid that does use those workers.

Ron Ford was one of the few Democrats on the board, along with Deb Allan, to vote against the plan. He said the changes will make county construction projects more expensive by excluding nonunion labor and small businesses.

“I don’t agree with how this is going to affect small businesses,” Ford said. “The larger (union) companies have a higher overhead. And there’s the suggestion in this that people out there who are doing their jobs to feed their family are not qualified.”

Allan said there is no precedent of failed county construction projects that justifies the new labor requirements. She said the policy will force small businesses to hire union labor or get shut out of government projects.

“We do not have shoddy workmen working on our projects,” Allan said. “We do not have lawsuits coming to us for people getting injured. We require OSHA training. We require references. It’s not for me to tell someone how to run his business.”

The majority of the county board that supported the measure didn’t speak to the impact on local union memberships, workers or businesses. Chris Kious was a leading voice in favor of the change, joining fellow Democrat Mavis Bates in authoring letters to local news outlets to lay out what they see as the advantages of the changes.

“The intent is to ensure companies meet minimum standards,” Kious told his fellow county board members. “It allows us to ensure the work provided is of high quality. It assures that the qualified workers who perform the work are treated fairly and are safe in their workplace. It doesn’t exclude small businesses. It requires them to provide training and safety.”

Bates said it is just as important -- if not more so -- to have what she deems a responsible contractor, not just a low price. She said government is too often focused on just getting the lowest bid possible.

“What that creates is a race to the bottom,” Bates said. “It encourages the bidder to cut corners to bring their bids down penny by penny.”

Attempts by those who voted against the changes to modify the plan -- to either raise the trigger for the rules above $30,000 or add a “reasonable alternative” to local union apprenticeship programs -- failed.