Responsible Contracting, Rail Safety Headline Pro-Worker Laws in Minn. Legislature Windup

ST. PAUL, Minn. –Rail safety and responsible contractor laws were the highlights of the final days of a productive Minnesota state legislative session for workers.
The rail safety law, which the United Transportation Union, a SMART sector, campaigned for, features the first-ever measure in the nation mandating lighting levels in rail yards.  And the responsible contractors law, which the Carpenters and other building trades championed, defined standards construction firms must meet to bid on and win state jobs.
The two measures joined an increase in the state minimum wage, a women’s economic equity package, a law streamlining public worker collective bargaining procedures and a $1 billion infrastructure bond issue.  The legislature passed all those measures this year.
On public construction projects in Minnesota, the law says the lowest responsible bidder gets the job.  But what constitutes a “responsible bidder” wasn’t clearly defined.  That changed.
A bi-partisan effort, with both Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Republican authors, the bill passed the House 84-38 and the Senate 59-0.  Gov. Mark Dayton, DFL-Minn., signed it.
The law is straightforward: When making a bid, contractors must sign a statement that they meet certain criteria.  If it turns out that a contractor submits a false statement, then they’re in breach of contract and the public agency can revoke or refuse to award a contract.
“The (building) trades were frustrated that unscrupulous bidders were being awarded public contracts on all sorts of jobs,” said Kyle Makarios, the Carpenters’ director of government affairs and leader of the lobbying.  “We put our heads together to come up with a mechanism to fix the problem.”  The unions also got contractor associations on board.
Sheet Metal Workers Local 10 Political Director Pete Parris, said that while there were no serious roadblocks, any change on this scale can be difficult especially when it involves so many different, invested parties. In the end, however, it was clear that, “Minnesotans deserve better. Contractors need to understand that just choosing the lowest bidder is not enough anymore and there will be sanctions if new rules aren’t followed.”
“This is a good example of common sense legislation. Just like in any field of work, there are standards that should be met. Those who play by the rules should not be penalized by shoddy competitors,” added Dan McConnell, business manager of the Minneapolis Building & Construction Trades Council.
“This takes effect Jan. 1, 2015. We’ll see how it works out. The goal isn’t to just catch the bad guys, but to make clear that it’s very risky to cheat. Honest contractors need to be comfortable and see that everybody has to play by the same rules and the only losers will be the cheaters,” Makarios said.
Specifically contractors will have to verify that they comply with and have not had any recent violations of these requirements:
  • Payment to cover their employees with workers’ compensation and unemployment compensation.
  • Wage and hour laws, including overtime pay, child labor regulations and prevailing wage requirements.
  •  Laws prohibiting illegal subcontracting schemes, payroll fraud and employee misclassification.
  • No current debarments by the federal government, the state, or any local government.
  •  No repeated sanctions or suspensions due to failures to make good faith efforts to hire minority workers, disadvantaged business enterprises or target group businesses.
Minnesota’s rail unions say rail workers and the public will benefit from new safety laws, including the nation’s first regulation for adequate lighting of rail yards.  The laws are:
  • The yard lighting law, which sets standards for lighting of rail yards, deadlines for repair of malfunctioning lighting and provisions for regular review of lighting where cars or locomotives are switched and inspected or trains are assembled or disassembled frequently.
  • The “Oil Spill Defense Act” assures that public first responders, including rail workers, are trained and equipped to deal with derailments and other incidents related to the transportation of oil by rail.
  • “The “Railroad Crew Van Law” strengthens the standards for drivers and vehicles conveying rail crews between terminals and trains.
Rail workers want to make their workplaces safer – both for themselves and the public, said Phil Qualy, SMART’s Minnesota legislative director.  The union represents 1,400 railroad conductors, switch foremen, yardmasters and remote control locomotive engineers.
The yard lighting bill “will improve worker safety and the quality of mechanical inspections of rail cars at yards before they move in trains on mainline track,” he told lawmakers.  He also said its passage would continue Minnesota’s tradition of being in the forefront of rail safety measures.
SMART and a broad coalition backed training first responders to deal with incidents relating to oil shipments, especially due to increased traffic from the oil boom in North Dakota.
Train derailments, such as those that occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, and Casselton, N.D., cost lives and endangered communities.  Union members want to do their public duty by responding to such incidents, but they need the training that will now be offered thanks to the new legislation, Qualy said.  SMART will keep pressuring the federal government for legislation to prevent future derailments, add more train inspections, ensure adequate crew sizes and rest periods and to force retirement or retrofitting of old or dangerous oil tank cars.
“As train crews, our mission is 100% without exception,” Qualy told state lawmakers. “’Safety First’ means no incident.”