Broward County

Union members jam Palm Beach commission meeting on $600M project

A capacity crowd of union members and interested residents jammed into the county's Solid Waste Authority office building this morning as Palm Beach County commissioners prepared to discuss the biggest contract in county history.

This morning's meeting, which was expected to begin at 9 a.m., played host to an overcapacity crowd that squeezed into the SWA building.

Some union members and others who had been standing in a line that snaked around the building for nearly 30 minutes this morning were turned away. At least 75 people, mostly union members, still remained outside.

Frustrated union members like Andrew Haynes said they are protesting the hiring of out-of-state workers to fill jobs on the project, as the local economy suffers through one of the worst construction downturns in decades.

"People are hungry, and we need to and eat," said Haynes, a 30-year member of the Iron Workers Association.

He was joined by others like Eddie O'Bryant, a 50-year-old pipefitter from North Palm Beach, pipefitter, who was laid off Tuesday from a job he had been hired on just last month. Previously, O'Bryant had been unemployed for nine months.

"I came out to support local people, not unions," he said. "If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything."

Three companies are vying for the chance to build and operate the county's $600 million-plus incinerator that will burn anything and produce energy. A review committee chose the county's current operator, Babcock & Wilcox.

Competitors, however, say the Charlotte, N.C., company has gotten favored treatment because of its long relationship with the county though it never has built such a facility. Trade unions are rallying against B&W because of a partner's poor record of local hiring on a recent construction job.

Palm Coast Building Trades President Sean Mitchell said B&W has told the union "point blank that their business model is to not go into business with unions."

"They should be ashamed of themselves for saying that," he said this morning.

The competition is particularly keen because it has been so long since a public utility in the United States has embarked on such a costly approach to garbage eradication. Of the three bidders, Covanta Energy of Morristown, N.J., claims to have built the most - at 41 - but even Covanta has not started a mass burn unit in the United States since 1994.

Instead, utilities have opted for the relatively low cost of landfills.

The mass burn unit reduces 100 percent of trash to ash. Burning trash produces steam to generate electricity.

Local union leaders are protesting B&W's top ranking. B&W has said it will set aside two of every 10 skilled labor jobs for local workers. That's not enough, Mitchell said.

He pointed out that Covanta has offered double that amount. With training, Mitchell estimated, locals could provide 60 percent of the skilled workforce.

Still fresh in the unions' memory is last year's $200 million SWA project. About two thirds of the project's roughly 300 workers came from outside Palm Beach County; half came from outside Florida.

BE&K Inc., the subcontractor on the project - and B&W's partner on the current bid - argued that highly specialized jobs required skilled labor largely unavailable in the region.