Conspicuous new projects have put Hawaii’s construction industry in the spotlight lately. New luxury high-rises dominate the Kakaako skyline; Ho‘opili and Koa Ridge, two massive housing developments, are going up; more affordable housing projects are proposed to meet the crushing demand. The stadium district appears ripe for redevelopment, along with other transit-oriented development (TOD) projects. And there’s the rail transit project.
As executive director of the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council (HBCTC), Gino Soquena plays a key advocacy role in ensuring those projects are built with union labor.
“When we meet with the developers, (they) sometimes reach out to us for help in getting through the process … neighborhood board meetings, Land Use Commission meetings,” Soquena said. “They ask us to help, to testify. So we do that and, in turn, we ask that they do the job union, and we push a lot of PLAs (project labor agreements).”
PLAs, also known as community workforce agreements (CWAs), were the subject of City Council Bill 37, a contentious measure that became law in October without Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s signature. The ordinance requires the city to negotiate CWAs with HBCTC, the Hawaii Construction Alliance and their affiliated unions, on public works projects worth $2 million or more. Critics said the measure was a sop to the trade unions and will drive up costs; proponents, including Soquena, say it will ensure that projects are completed without labor disruptions by qualified, well-trained local workers.
But one of Soquena’s biggest worries isn’t lower-paid non-union labor; it’s the protests on Mauna Kea. He fears the blockade against the Thirty Meter Telescope could spark similar opposition to current projects — a park at Sherwood Forest in Waimanalo and wind turbines in Kahuku come to mind — as well as future ones, including a planned missile defense system to be sited either in Kahuku or at Kaena Point.
“I have discussions with some friends of mine who are for the mauna and against TMT … and they go, ‘Oh no, it’s just about the mismanagement of the mountain,’” he said. “Other jobs? No worry. Well, Sherwood Forest comes up. Bingo. Kahuku comes up. Bingo. Even that (playground) in Ala Moana park, that little project they have. Bingo.”
Soquena, 50, was born in Waialua and graduated from Campbell High School. He attended trade school in Arizona, and joined the Operating Engineers Union Local 3 in 1990 as a heavy-equipment mechanic. Along the way, he served variously as a business agent, district representative, political director and executive director for several union locals in Hawaii before taking on his current job in April. He is married and lives in Makakilo.
Question: What role does HBCTC play in Hawaii’s building industry?
Answer: The HBCTC represents 15 of the 18 construction trade unions here in Hawaii. These construction trade unions represent over 20,000 members and their families. We proudly advocate and lobby on behalf of our members and their families to help build a healthy building and construction industry. These construction jobs allow our members to support their families and provide a livelihood so they can continue to stay home in Hawaii and raise their families. It is heartbreaking to see and hear that so many local families have been forced to move to the mainland. The HBCTC also promotes the construction industry and supports many community causes.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the construction industry in Hawaii today?
A: I would say the uncertainty and turmoil that has been created by the recent protests happening across the state. Projects that have been already approved that are delayed by protests result in tremendous additional resources and funds being required and without certainty that the project will be completed. Developers and investors won’t want to do business here in Hawaii for fear that their project might get held up or even stopped completely due to protesters. Any economic downturn, which some predict, will also result in decreased tax revenues, affecting all levels of government, government services and also fewer public construction projects.
If we allow projects to be stopped at the “11th hour” by opponents, this would be disastrous to our industry, to our members and also the larger community. It will result in our approval processes being meaningless.
Q: What is the industry forecast?
A: The forecast of upcoming construction projects is good. There are a lot of construction projects scheduled to begin soon or planned for the near future and more long-term. This includes a number of projects in the Ala Moana and Kapiolani area, public works projects (airport, harbors, city and county), and federal projects. Some forecasters fear that there may be an upcoming recession. I think for Hawaii, it will be more of a retrenchment.
Q: What are the most important construction projects in progress today and being planned?
A: Projects that are in progress today are the rail, infrastructure improvements and housing projects (Ho‘opili, Koa Ridge, etc). Projects planned are the redevelopment of areas like Kalihi (Kalihi Kai, Mayor Wright Housing, Kuhio Park Terrace), Kakaako and the Aloha Stadium, that would address the housing crisis. Any renewable energy projects, especially if the plan is to get to 100% renewable by the year 2045. Any military projects that would increase the security of not only our state but also our country.
Q: What about the rail project?
A: The rail project has been a boon, with many local jobs created in the actual construction of the rail project, but especially because of the TOD planned along the rail line. Much of the recent construction and planned construction in the Ala Moana/Kapiolani area have been spurred because they are TOD projects. The new Aloha Stadium project, the Mayor Wright Housing project, plans for the Kapalama area and much more have all been positively affected by rail.
The question of whether rail jobs have gone to local workers continues to be raised. As far as construction jobs are concerned, the answer is absolutely yes. We have agreements with the contractors that local workers will be hired and that only specialized skilled workers come from the mainland. Remember, we have never built a rail system before and need workers who have worked on building a rail system somewhere else, and we need the specialized experiences and skills to help us build our rail. All other construction workers have been local.
Q: How do you respond to complaints by the General Contractors Association of Hawaii and others that Bill 37 is unfair to non-union contractors?
A:The GCA represents both union and non-union contractors. All public works projects are covered by Chapter 104, which requires prevailing wage rates (which are the union rates), so the labor costs for all contractors are the same. Under Bill 37, all contractors can bid on all projects. The non-union contractor does not have to pay any additional fees. If a non-union contractor already pays prevailing wages, which is required under Chapter 104, a CWA will not result in that contractor paying anything more.
Union dues are paid by the workers, not the contractor, and with paying dues, that worker is then eligible for the benefits the union provides to all of their members.
Q: How does HBCTC respond to environmental concerns about overdevelopment?
A: The HBCTC is concerned about our environment. Our members and their families live here. We want our children to grow up in a clean, healthy Hawaii.
Regarding overdevelopment, we try to address these tough issues in a balanced way. There was opposition to Ho‘opili being developed; opponents claimed that Ho‘opili represented “overdevelopment.” A 2015 DBEDT report projects that the demand for total new housing in Hawaii is between 64,700 and 66,000 homes for the 2015 to 2025 period. How do we provide local families with homes without development? Sadly, I have not heard the opponents ever attempt to answer that question.
The HBCTC does not support every project that is proposed. Currently we are opposed to the PVT landfill relocating to a site right across the street from where they are at currently. We understand that we need a place for construction and demolition waste like the PVT landfill. We just don’t support it being there in Nanakuli, so close to so many residential homes. They need to look for a location that is far from residential homes.