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Jackson County Set Royals Stadium Tax Vote. Now, Labor Gears Up for Tough Talks Workers say a community benefits agreement could provide higher-paying union jobs to thousands of residents.

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Above image credit: A view of a possible Royals ballpark in the East Village area of downtown. (Rendering | Populous)
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5 minute read

The Kansas City Royals want voters to promise four more decades of tax money to underwrite a new stadium. Parking attendants, beer vendors and the other people who tend to fans want more leverage on their wages.

And the Royals say the team stands willing to bargain, offering to enter into a community benefits agreement modeled after deals cut in other cities.

Now comes the tricky part. Experts say much lies ahead to sort out whether the resulting deal actually brings terms that could raise the standard of living for stadium workers.

“When these are done right,” said Matthew Eisenson, senior fellow at Columbia University Law School who studies such deals, “it’s an opportunity to secure benefits that they otherwise would not get.” 

The Good Jobs and Affordable Housing for All Coalition, which includes the union representing current stadium workers, says it’s eager to dig into talks with the team.

“This is my first time at the table, sitting across a billion-dollar organization to negotiate working conditions and wages. It’s like a dream come true,” said Terrence Wise, a leader with Stand Up KC, a group of fast-food and retail workers that’s part of the coalition.

Wise drives for Uber and Instacart and has been working with Stand Up KC and the Missouri Workers Center for more than 10 years. Both groups are part of the coalition that has called for a legally binding CBA with the Royals for over a year. 

The coalition has maintained a neutral stance towards the sales tax, but members say promising more tax dollars to the stadium gives them new leverage to bargain with the team. 

“Before we can all blink, there could be a new billion-dollar entertainment district downtown,” Wise said. “If it goes how we want, it will be transformative to the city.”

What We Know About the CBA

Jackson County Executive Frank White vetoed a proposal that would put a 40-year extension of a 3/8-cent cents tax on the April ballot. He argued the Royals and the Kansas City Chiefs owe the county and voters more details about their plans — starting with terms on any new stadium leases and where the Royals want to move.

Then the Jackson County Legislature overrode him this week after the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, the Royals and the Chiefs released a letter of intent to provide more details and a pledge to stay in Jackson County. 

County Legislator Jalen Anderson originally backed White’s veto of the tax, but changed his mind on Monday after the letter was released. His vote clinched the override that put the tax question to voters.

“We wanted to see some type of movement happen with what the Royals plan to do, what they stand by, and see what they’ll at least have a conversation about,” he said. 

The letter states that the county plans to meet with various interest groups to make investments in programs and initiatives that respond to community needs.

It lists 33 examples CBA topics, including a minimum of 30% participation of businesses owned by people of color or women, living-wage agreements, on-site health care for new stadium workers, workforce training and apprenticeships. 

“The CBA hasn’t been finalized, but I think the reps and workers having a place at the table to discuss what they want to see and what they will not accept is a crucial step,” Anderson said.

A draft should be completed by Feb. 14, according to an unofficial schedule of additional tasks the Jackson County legislators want to see checked off. 

“Everyone thinks the initial vote is the last day for accountability, but that’s not the case,” said Legislator Manny Abarca, who uploaded the timeline to his Twitter profile. “Several checks and balances exist along the way to make sure voters get the best deal in this effort.” 

Wise said the coalition has not started negotiations with the team yet. And while there are no available details on the budget for the CBA, Eisenson at Columbia University said that developers may wait to release a budget until they factor in the cost of the benefits that come with additional fees, such as child care and employee training.

What are the Worker Demands at Royals Stadium?

Wise said that the main demands from the coalition are not far off from what Stand Up KC always advocates for: livable wages and the right to unionize without interference. 

“We’re talking about thousands of workers from day one being a part of a union and having good union jobs,” he said. “This has got to be a good deal for everyone. It will impact our city for decades to come.”

Other demands could include requirements to hire workers from ZIP codes with high unemployment rates, protecting the jobs and union contracts of current stadium workers and a guarantee of truly affordable housing and avoidance of displacement for low-income residents near the stadium.

Eisenson said deals in other cities faced roadblocks because they lacked the teeth to hold developers to CBA standards.   

“For example, if the CBA promises that the developer will hire locally,” he said, “the agreement should provide some sort of mechanism to ensure that the information about who the developer is hiring is being disclosed.”

What Makes a Strong CBA?

The Royals have cited the CBA for the new Kansas City International Airport  terminal as well as the CBAs with the Milwaukee Bucks, Tampa Rays and Buffalo Bills as models for their agreement. 

In 2016, the Milwaukee Bucks announced that the team had finalized a CBA with the local coalition Alliance for Good Jobs. That agreement has been heralded by experts as a major success and a national model for other CBAs. 

A 2022 study done by COWS, a nonprofit think tank based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, concluded that three factors made that deal significant. First, it gave service and hospitality workers a fair process to unionize. Next, it set minimum wage in the district around the arena. Finally, it created a first-source hiring hall that hires at least 50% of workers from low-income ZIP codes. 

The Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization was also established as a  union and the successor organization to the Alliance for Good Jobs. 

That avoided a common failure of CBAs: the collapse of community coalitions. 

If the developer makes an agreement with a community-based organization and that organization dissolves,” Eisenson said, “who can assert claims on its behalf?” 

He said it’s important for the community coalition to have a solid foundation with long-term goals to speak on behalf of workers and residents. 

The Kansas City coalition is also trying to understand some CBAs that they see as failures.

Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, the developer for the new KCI terminal, allocated $23.4 million to its Terminal Workforce Enhancement Programs — which included a workforce training program and 14 other initiatives. But Wise said the terminal was ultimately a bad deal for some workers.

“It provided union jobs to help build it,” he said. “But where were the jobs for workers after the airport was up and running?”

The CBA for the Buffalo Bills was announced in 2023, with the team dedicating $3 million annually over 30 years to fund projects that benefit Erie County, New York. But that $90 million was dwarfed by the $850 million taxpayers made to the $1.5 billion stadium. 

Experts have said that the Buffalo deal also doesn’t specify how the money will be spent. Instead, it creates an oversight panel to make the decisions. 

Eisenson said that ambiguity during negotiations provides a big obstacle to crafting strong agreements. Terms should be clear and leave little room for interpretation. 

“If the terms are ambiguous, the agreement is harder to enforce,” he said. “A well-designed CBA is enforceable to the same extent as any other binding contract.”

So, he suggests, get legal help. And that cost, he said, can sometimes pose a significant hurdle.

Wise said that his coalition will use its collective voice to hold the team accountable.  

“We take tools from our toolbox — strikes, civil disobedience, rallies, speak-outs,” he said. 

“We always hold folks accountable when they don’t do right by the people.”

This article first appeared on The Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. Mili Mansaray is the housing and labor reporter with The Beacon, a member of the KC Media Collective.

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