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Monorail officials set minority hiring goals, despite law

By Mike Lindblom
Seattle Times

Seattle monorail officials are aiming to hire minority and female workers for one-third of the Green Line's 600 construction jobs, undaunted by a state law that forbids racial and gender preferences in public hiring.

Diversity targets are a cornerstone of a new labor agreement with 19 union locals that was signed yesterday by the monorail agency and union leaders.

Companies that win $1.3 billion in monorail design and construction contracts must hire mainly through the union halls, which in turn are expected to recruit "people of color" for at least 21 percent of the on-site workers and women for 12 percent of the jobs.

"One-third of the city are people of color, and this agreement puts forth goals, that the people who pay the taxes will share in the jobs," said Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) board member Cindi Laws.

The monorail contracts manager, Jan Keiser, called the agency's hiring targets "voluntary, aspirational goals" that comply with Initiative 200.

That law, passed by state voters in 1998, prohibited public agencies from considering race and gender in hiring, contracting and school admissions. While it passed overwhelmingly statewide, a majority of voters within Seattle opposed I-200.

The hiring program will work like this:
  • Unions will achieve diversity by widening their pool of job applicants, instead of relying on illegal racial preferences at the time of hiring. One-fifth of workers will be in apprenticeships, where half the first-year apprentices and a third of all apprentices would be women or minorities. A $300,000 fund will help "at-risk" people finish high-school degrees, obtain driver's licenses, or gain other basic skills to compete for jobs. Recruiting in public schools and the military should also produce a more diverse group, Keiser said.
  • The targets are not "quotas," she said, because the companies and unions will not be penalized if they fall short.
    However, she added that companies will be judged partly on their diversity plans when two teams of builders bid for the $1.3 billion contract this summer.

I-200 co-sponsor Tim Eyman, a prominent anti-tax activist, argues that the hiring pact is an attempt to evade the ban against affirmative action in public hiring. In a recent complaint to the state Attorney General, he called the agreement "a blatant and flagrant violation of state law."

A deputy attorney general responded that the office had no legal authority in the issue since the monorail agency is a local government entity, not a state agency.

The pact is being studied by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public-interest law firm that supports I-200 and has sued to enforce the similar Proposition 209 in California.

"The devil is in the details," said attorney Russell Brooks, who said the foundation hasn't taken a position yet on the labor agreement. "Is it offering advantages to some people and not to others because of their race?"

Union officials hailed the agreement.

"Family-wage jobs are hard to come by in this economy, especially for people with cards stacked against them," said monorail board member Steve Williamson, executive secretary-treasurer of the King County Labor Council. "This agreement has potential to help a lot of people turn their situations around."

Peter Coates, executive secretary of the Seattle/King County Building and Construction Trades Council, said his organization has reached out to African-American businesses to discuss prospects for doing some off-site monorail work — such as pre-casting the concrete columns — even though small businesses tend to be nonunion.

I-200's passage created a dilemma because many politicians and agencies opposed to the law are now obligated to carry it out.

During the press conference, monorail Executive Director Joel Horn said of the agreement: "We're going a far as we can possibly go without violating the law."

Sound Transit's light-rail project also sets targets for minority and female participation. The only recent controversy came not from the political right but from black ministers, who protested in January because black-owned businesses were getting a minuscule share of the dollars.

The monorail labor agreement forbids strikes or walkouts during construction of the 14-mile monorail connecting Ballard, Seattle Center, downtown, and West Seattle through 2009.

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