July 31 2013 12:00 AM

Whether Lansing voters know it, the issue of prevailing wage is driving next week's primary election.

Within hours after City Pulse published an innocuous line in a July 17 online story that said City Council member Brian Jeffries opposed Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero on significant issues, such as prevailing wage, the editorial staff heard from both camps within hours. Both said they are staunch supporters of prevailing wage. Both are up for re-election.

If there is a unifying theme in Tuesday’s primary election, it is prevailing wage — regardless of whether voters realize it. Virtually all the candidates pay at least supportive lip service to prevailing wage, but differences on the issue are at the core of why the pro-Bernero slate running for City Council did not receive endorsements from the Greater Lansing Labor Council, which represents some 40 unions.

From the Labor Council’s point of view, two of the pro-Bernero incumbents, Jessica Yorko and Kathie Dunbar, voted on the wrong side in a come-to-Jesus moment over prevailing wage in 2010. Jeffries, an incumbent who is supported by the Labor Council, voted on the right side. Prevailing wage is an area standard that sets hourly rates for anyone from plumbers to bricklayers.

But how far the administration or the Council can go in mandating such labor agreements, whether it’s a public or private project, is limited. The city is in the process of appealing a Circuit Court decision — which Bernero says is an indication of his support for prevailing wage — from November that struck down its prevailing wage ordinance, which applies the standard to city-funded construction projects.

Local developer Pat Gillespie’s Market Place and Marshall Street Armory projects were at the core of the 2010 rift. 

In October 2010, the Council, on a 4-4 vote, defeated a motion to grant tax incentives for Market Place because it didn’t have a project labor agreement attached to it. Gillespie sued, contending that the Council’s reason for doing so wasn’t valid. After Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sided with Gillespie, the Council chose not to appeal.

Bernero calls prevailing wage an “important issue in the campaign a lot of people might not realize.” He said that should candidates like Chong-Anna Canfora in the 4th Ward, who has deep union roots and support, get elected, the city might be characterized with a mentality that 100 percent of construction jobs in the city be unionized. Bernero called such a mentality “extremist,” “minimalist thinking and divisive,” and warned of the message it’d send to developers. 

“This is what concerns me about the building trades and Chong-Anna: If you take that approach, draw a circle around Lansing and raise the bar and say Lansing is going to do it this way, you’re going to get 100 percent of nothing,” Bernero said. 

If elected, Canfora would unseat Yorko, whose vote, along with Dunbar’s, Bernero counts on to sustain his veto power. This year, he vetoed every Council amendment to the budget. His opponents, led by President Carol Wood, could not overcome his veto.

“I’m concerned that with this Council, should they get six votes and they can override my veto, they can pass any crazy new requirement on business they think sounds good. It scares me, and it should scare Lansing residents,” he said.

When asked to respond to the mayor’s claims, Canfora said: “If Virgil is suggesting that I stand with the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, he’s absolutely right. I stand with working people any day of the week. I stand with projects going to local jobs and local people, particularly those that are taxpayer funded or subsidized.”

Canfora declined to comment on Bernero’s claim that she falls in a camp that wants 100 percent of building trades jobs to be unionized. When asked what she’d do as a Council member to require labor agreements from developers, she said: “I strongly support prevailing wage” and expects developers — “particularly those looking for taxpayer-funded subsidies or tax incentives” — to “be good actors and good corporate citizens.”

Jeffries said he’s looking for consensus between business and labor. While he said he supports prevailing wage and project labor agreements, he recognizes that the city is hamstrung in terms of requiring developers to forge agreements with organized labor, based on the pending lawsuit.

“When you talk to the private sector side of things, they want to be able to maintain control of whether they do prevailing wage or project labor agreements,” Jeffries said. “They don’t want the city, as part of a mandate on economic development incentives, to require it. I’m hoping we can find common ground between our friends in business and labor.”

On “City Pulse Newsmakers,” Dunbar said she supports prevailing wage but agreed with Bernero that projects shouldn’t be killed if the workforce is not 100 percent unionized. Yorko said prevailing wage is important for preventing a “race to the bottom” when it comes to wages. (All three TV shows with the Council candidates will air on Comcast Channel 16 in Lansing beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Monday.)

At-Large candidate Ted O’Dell said on the show that he would have voted for reducing tax incentives to Gillespie in 2010. Mayoral candidate Gene Gutierrez-Rodriguez also falls into that camp. Another mayoral candidate, John Boise, believes prevailing wage should be required if contractors are from out of the area.

Judi Brown Clarke, at-large candidate, said in an interview that while the Council has a “vested interest” in how development is agreed upon, she sees the Council’s role as one of a “mediator” between business and labor. At-Large candidate Keith Smith agrees that such requirements should be a “mutual agreement” between the two sides. Mayoral candidate Harold Leeman Jr. agrees that it should be worked out in advance if tax incentives are involved.

Bert Carrier Jr., a 4th Ward candidate, said on the show he prefers a “free-market approach,” which means “aggressively” bidding out projects and that “prevailing wage shouldn’t be the No. 1 factor that the city’s looking at when trying to bring development into the city.” Larry Hutchinson, another 4th Ward candidate, said Monday he didn’t have a comment on the issue.

City Primary Election

Tuesday, Aug. 6

A field of six At-Large City Council candidates will be narrowed to four.

Four 4th Ward Council candidates will be narrowed to two.

Five mayoral candidates will be narrowed to two.

Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.


On Tuesday, voters in the Haslett Public School District will be asked to approve a 10-year millage for a district-wide “sinking fund” that would pay for resurfacing parking lots, upgrading elementary playground equipment, roofs, furnaces, air conditioning units, plumbing, interior and exterior doors and the district’s performing arts center. The 1.25-mill levy is expected to generate $650,000 in the first year. It would cost homes valued at $200,000 about $125 annually.