© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kansas City construction unions back Royals stadium, but low-wage workers demand more

 A man in a blue suit holds a megaphone and leads a chant. Behind him is a crowd of people holding signs that advocate for union jobs. They are wearing red shirts that say Stand Up KC and are chanting.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Daniel Tucker, a leader with Stand Up KC and the Missouri Workers Center, leads chants with protestors at a June 2023 rally demanding the Royals sign a community benefits agreement.

Several labor and community groups, including Kansas City Public Schools, are demanding more concessions from The Kansas City Royals before they support a 3/8-cent sales tax renewal that would help fund a new ballpark. Building trades unions endorsed the project after securing promises.

Kansas City construction worker unions find many things to like about extending the 3/8-cent sales tax to build a new Royals stadium and maintain Arrowhead Stadium — such as new jobs.

But service workers who would fill the jobs in and around a new ballpark in the Crossroads Arts District say they’re being left out. Low-income workers and tenants want more, like promises of better wages and compensation for people who’d get displaced by all that construction work.

“We’re quickly losing confidence that they’re going to really put forward something that would be an actual community benefits agreement,” said Gina Chiala, attorney and executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom.

Her organization is part of the Good Jobs and Affordable Housing for All Coalition, a collective of five community groups that has spent the past year bargaining with the team and has yet to cut a deal with the Royals.

Representatives from the team say that they are interested in signing a strong community benefits agreement similar to deals made on other projects, like the new Kansas City International Airport terminal.

But with the April 2 election just weeks away, the team has yet to commit to a community benefits agreement, and some of the groups trying to negotiate a deal say they don’t see an earnest effort coming from the Royals.

At a February town hall, the Good Jobs Coalition announced that it had given the team until March 19 to sign a community benefits agreement. If the team doesn’t sign a CBA by then, the Heartland Center will endorse a “no” vote on the ballot, Chiala said.

“This project could actually move the city forward and start to lift low-wage workers out of poverty and put our city on a different, much more hopeful track,” she said. “The ball is firmly in the team’s court.”

Who are the key players in the CBA?

Members of the Good Jobs and Affordable Housing for All Coalition announced that The Royals have until March 19 to sign a community benefit agreement at a February townhall.
Mili Mansaray
The Beacon Kansas City
Members of the Good Jobs and Affordable Housing for All Coalition announced that The Royals have until March 19 to sign a community benefit agreement at a February townhall.

The Royals already have the support of the area’s key construction trade unions and their supporters. Notably, the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO backs the team, since building a new ballpark would bring the construction trades years of work.

Next, the team faces demands from two groups looking for terms in a community benefits agreement that benefit lower-wage workers in the new stadium and the proposed entertainment district that would surround it.

The Community Benefits Coalition negotiates for the terms that Jackson County government wants in a CBA. But state law prevents local government from setting wage rules.

That’s where the Good Jobs and Affordable Housing for All Coalition comes in. That coalition represents a third group trying to gain job protections, better wages and diversity efforts for a broader range of Crossroads residents and workers. Its leverage with the team lies principally in a threat of opposing passage of the April 2 ballot measure the team wants so desperately.

“A private contract between the community coalition and team can cover anything and everything and is enforceable in a court of law,” said John Goldstein, a Newark-based labor leader and CBA expert. “The broader community coalition has a much better chance of winning significant things because of that.”

A Kansas City labor union-built stadium

The construction trades unions know that their members figure to get plenty of work from building a new stadium — with or without a CBA.

“This vote is actually more than just the new stadium,” said Greg Chastain, business manager of Sheet Metal Workers Local 2. “This 3/8-cent sales tax extension is to provide maintenance and upkeep of the existing facilities.”

He said the Royals have verbally committed to using union labor for construction at the new stadium.

With the trade unions endorsing the sales tax, the Royals are now left to convince other workers and community members that the stadium will be beneficial.

A rendering of the proposed Kansas City Royals ballpark and entertainment district in the East Crossroads.
Kansas City Royals
A rendering of the proposed Kansas City Royals ballpark and entertainment district in the East Crossroads.

Demands from Jackson County

The Community Benefits Coalition, organized by Jackson County legislators, is led by Urban League of Kansas City President Gwendolyn Grant. That coalition includes members representing housing, transit, community organizations and others, said county Legislator Manny Abarca.

“We’re advocating for benefits for the county,” he said.

That group’s CBA proposal leaked publicly in late February. It lists nearly $1.4 billion in benefits across 13 categories — including demands for child care benefits, workforce diversity and transit, Abarca said.

The county’s negotiations with the Royals are ongoing, but Abarca said the team has yet to acknowledge many categories in the draft.

Low-wage workers and residents want in

Meanwhile, the Good Jobs Coalition wants more — particularly around the wage issues that the county can’t weigh in on. Chiala said that the Royals have given a list of reasons the team can’t meet that group’s demands — from not wanting to stir drama between organizations to not having enough money to invest in a CBA.

She said that the only offer she knows of from the team is one they gave to the county: a $3 million yearly donation that the team would contribute to the Royals’ charitable foundations.

“It’s an empty offer,” she said. “They will get the tax benefit … and then unilaterally decide what that money goes to. It wouldn’t move the dial at all.”

The Good Jobs Coalition also brought two goals to the Jackson County CBA draft: a promise that 30% of any housing developed around the stadium gets reserved for low-income tenants; and the establishment of a first-source union hiring hall to recruit and refer new employees within the district.

A shrunken tax base for public schools

Kansas City Public Schools also want money from the Royals.

The current Jackson County CBA draft includes three benefits for the district: a $3 million yearly investment in organizations that provide education services for youth, high school visits from baseball players and at least two free events in the stadium per year.

But the school district says that isn’t enough. The stadium and surrounding ballpark district would take land out of the district’s property tax base, wiping away property tax revenue for public schools.

The district wants the Royals to make up the difference and fund the DeLano Youth Housing and Supportive Services project, which would convert a closed school into a youth housing and services center.

Do Kansas City labor unions want the same things?

 A woman in a red shirt that reads "Stand Up KC" stands behind a half wall and holds a United Auto Workers sign above her head. Behind her, another person holds a sign that reads "Union Justice Now!" A young girl sits on the ledge of the half wall with a stuffed animal looking over the crowd.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Protesters with Stand Up KC joined other area unions in June 2023 in fighting for a strong community benefits agreement for the new Royals stadium.

The Jackson County coalition, with its direct ties to government, can’t make endorsements on the April 2 vote. If the group can’t reach a CBA with the team, that would mean the coalition was simply unsuccessful, Abarca said.

Leaders with the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO have had meetings with the team and endorsed the sales tax extension based on promises they got from the Royals.

In addition to using union construction labor, the team has also agreed to pay prevailing union wages for construction workers, to honor contracts and union memberships with current stadium workers and to promise new stadium workers the right to unionize, said Tristin Amezcua-Hogan, spokesperson for the Greater KC AFL-CIO.

“This part of things will be in the written CBA,” he said.

The building trades unions say they back a CBA that outlines protections for other workers. But they acknowledge that with so many groups making demands with the Royals, that could make it hard for other workers to get what they want.

Chastain with the sheet metal workers union said the range of groups looking to negotiate a CBA with the Royals has grown unwieldy — and should be narrowed. He sees room for groups like Stand Up KC — part of the Good Jobs Coalition — that have been advocating for low-wage workers since the stadium proposal surfaced.

“It’s getting muddy,” he said, “because too many groups are jumping in now.”

Other groups, however, say that the trend of Kansas City using union labor for large construction jobs has been going on for a while, such as with the new Kansas City International Airport terminal. But the same protections aren’t guaranteed for everyone else.

“Our concern is what happens after the stadium is built and who’s working in that stadium,” Chiala said. “The low-wage workers and low-income tenants have the harder battle here.”

This story was originally published by The Beacon Kansas City, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Mili Mansaray is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.