Developer decides to use 100 percent union labor for Downtown project

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The developer of a proposed 17-story mixed-use project in Downtown Berkeley recently announced its decision to use 100 percent union labor in the project’s construction.

Project developer HSR Berkeley Investments signed an agreement several weeks ago with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County, which represents the county’s 28 labor unions, to use union labor. The project, called the Residences at Berkeley Plaza, will be located at 2211 Harold Way.

Robert Stoker, president of the council, said that it is a “win-win” situation when both labor unions and developers come together and do something for the community.

Stoker said it is important that construction workers make livable wages. The project will employ roughly 300 skilled workers, who will earn $65 per hour on average, and take about three years for completion, he said.

“What better stimulus for the city of Berkeley than a sustainable project built with local labor, built in this community,” Stoker said.

According to Mark Rhoades, who represents HSR Berkeley Investments, the project was intended to be a union project from the very beginning, and there has not been such an agreement between a private developer and a labor union in the past two decades.

“Union labor is better labor,” Rhoades said, adding that because union laborers are more skilled, their work is more durable.

The negotiations, which lasted several months, centered mostly on clarifying existing language in the agreement, Stoker said. Hiring union labor will cost the project approximately $10 million, which represents about a 10 percent increase in the overall budget.

The project site currently houses a part of Shattuck Cinemas, which occupies the historic former Hinks department store.

Measure R, which sought to expand regulations for Downtown buildings and create an overlay protecting historic sites, would have shut down the project had it passed, because it would have required the development to adhere to stricter regulations, Rhoades said.

For example, the project would have had to receive a platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification and add more affordable housing units, he added.

“(I was) disappointed to discover that there were some very serious planning errors (in Measure R) that would have halted construction of projects that we would gain the most work from,” Stoker said.

City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin agreed that private developers would benefit from hiring union labor because they would garner public and political support.

“(The agreement) fills an important community priority,” Arreguin said.

John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said he supports the development because it will create more housing for families.

“We love having students Downtown, and they’re a key part of the fabric, but we’d like to see some more economic diversity,” Caner said.

Contact Suhauna Hussain at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @suhaunah.