GOP Targets State Construction Labor Projects

Nearly a dozen Republican governors have already made good on a promise that the GOP laid out as a national priority at its convention in Tampa last month: to end a policy that businesses say gives labor unions an unfair advantage when bidding on state construction projects.

“We demand an end to the Project Labor Agreements,” the GOP said in its 2012 party platform language referring to collectively bargained contracts that lay out basic terms and labor conditions on large construction projects.

Project Labor Agreements, commonly called PLAs, don't prohibit nonunion contractors from bidding on a project, but many won't, because they would have to accept all PLA terms, including offering wages and benefits they may not have otherwise provided to their employees. Plus, depending on state law, nonunion workers may be required to pay union dues or agency fees. Opponents say PLA projects cost as much as 18 percent more.

PLA supporters, notably unions, say PLAs can actually save public dollars because the agreements typically include language ruling out strikes or lockouts and define procedures for settling other disputes quickly, thus making it more likely the project will be done on time.

The issue is highly politicized. “This isn't about good policy,” says Dale Belman, a labor and industrial relations professor at Michigan State University who has studied PLAs. “It's power politics.” He calls the wave of anti-PLA legislation a tool Republicans use “trying to hurt the building trades.”

PLAs can be found at the private and public levels, including those for the Hoover Dam and the Trans-Alaska pipeline. The debate is most fierce involving public PLAs and, while the issue is hot at the federal level, the action these days is at the state level.

Some states had already set down the path to banning PLAs. Kansas became the 10th state since the beginning of 2011 to take that action. when Republican Governor Sam Brownback signed legislation prohibiting government-mandated PLAs on all state, local and state-funded construction, says Andy Conlin, who manages state and local issues for the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., an industry group that has led the lobbying in states to ban PLAs.

Similar legislation won approval in Virginia. The main sponsor of the measure there, Virginia Delegate Barbara Comstock, said in statement that it “guarantee(s) competition” and “protects the 96 percent of Virginia workers who are nonunion.”

Other GOP-led states that have restricted PLAs in the last two years include Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Anti-PLA measures enacted in Michigan and Idaho are being challenged.

But organized labor has seen a few victories of its own. The California legislature nullified bans on PLA mandates at the city level, and the Illinois General Assembly codified a 2011 executive order from Governor Pat Quinn that encouraged, but did not require, state agencies to use PLAs. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has promoted PLAs throughout his tenure, including recently for the construction of the Whittier Memorial Bridge across the Merrimack River.

Tom Owens, a spokesman for the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, says private companies use PLAs, including Toyota and Walt Disney, and the Washington Nationals baseball stadium in Washington, D.C., was built with a PLA. He says it's unfortunate the political attention PLAs are getting. “It's become sport to go after anything associated with unions, including PLAs.”

Conlin of the Associated Builders and Contractors says his group's efforts aren't anti-union but that the issue is fairness. “All this does is ensure that every construction contractor has equal opportunity to compete for projects funded by their own tax dollars regardless of their affiliation with a labor union. It gives everyone an equal shot,” he says.

The Associated General Contractors of America says it has members who voluntarily enter into PLAs “and swear by them,” but as an organization made up of both union and nonunion firms, AGC would prefer government not get involved. “The decision should rest with employers and their workforce, not government officials, especially since PLAs often undermine area-wide collective bargaining agreements, and of course, make it very difficult for open-shop contractors to compete for work,” says AGC spokesman Brian Turmail.

The issue is equally controversial at the federal level since it involves so much money. Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama signed an executive order encouraging all federal agencies to consider PLAs for large-scale, federally funded construction projects of at least $25 million. His action revoked a move by former President George W. Bush who banned PLAs on federal construction projects.

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