Because it is requiring that some of the people who help build the new Salt Palace convention facility be referred from union halls, Salt Lake County may set in motion events that delay the entire project.

And if the new center isn't completed by 1996, the Wasatch Front could lose convention business - including a meeting of bowlers billed as the largest convention ever in Utah.That seems an awful price to pay for a requirement that actually will have little impact.

The county's requirement demands that at least half of the new employees that contractors hire be referred from union halls. Nonunion contractors see that as a violation of the state's Right to Work Law, which prohibits anyone from being forced to join or hire from a union. Some of them have threatened to sue.

County officials are quick to note that state law prohibits union halls from discriminating against nonunion workers. But few, if any, such workers are registered with the halls. Meanwhile, some state lawmakers anxious to flex muscle in support of nonunion workers are talking about rescinding the $15 million the state is contributing to the project. That is a curious threat, considering the state already sent the money and the county long ago deposited the check.

Lawmakers probably would have to sue the county to recoup the money - an unlikely scenario. But the legislative saber-rattling that may follow if the county pushes its requirement could harm the county's triple-A bond rating. That could cost taxpayers more in interest on this and other projects.

Despite the heated opposition it is generating, the county's union requirement probably won't do much to alter the percentage of union workers on the project. It applies only to new hires. Nonunion contractors still will be allowed to bring their nonunion employees to the project. Some out-of-state contractors probably will win bids and have to hire large numbers of Utahns. But these contractors likely would have turned to union halls for that anyway.

This isn't an issue of wages or benefits - items normally associated with arguments over unions. The county is requiring all contractors to follow the wage and benefit agreements of local unions regardless of whether they employ union workers. While some contractors balk at this requirement, a predetermined wage scale seems a good way to ensure employees are treated fairly, regardless of how low a bid may be.

No, this is nothing more than an issue of whether employers in a right-to-work state can be required, even indirectly, to hire anyone from a union. That is an issue that likely is too big to settle in time for construction to proceed, which calls into question why the county is pushing it.

Bradley, who makes no secret of his loyalty to union leaders, and fellow Democratic Commissioner Randy Horiuchi say they only want to make sure Utah workers get the first shot at jobs.

That is a noble desire, but the county could accomplish as much by simply requiring contractors to hire a certain percentage of Utah workers, without having to drag in unions and the heated emotions they elicit.

The threats from contractors and blustering politicians may not result in any action, but the county shouldn't bet such an important project on it.