Profile image
By NLPC (Reporter)
Contributor profile | More stories
Story Views

Last Hour:
Last 24 Hours:

New Bill Would Ban Mandatory Project Labor Agreements

Thursday, April 30, 2015 13:15
% of readers think this story is Fact. Add your two cents.

(Before It's News)

In the construction industry, nothing exemplifies union monopoly, and its costs, quite like a Project Labor Agreement.  A new proposal before Congress, the Government Neutrality in Contracting Act, would protect contractors from intrusion by organized labor upon contractual liberty.  Sponsored by Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., (H.R. 1671, S. 71) the measure would bar the use of these agreements on federally-sponsored or subsidized public works.  In promoting open competition in bidding, hiring and other aspects of project labor, it effectively would overturn President Obama’s Executive Order 13502.  Issued in February 2009, the order “encouraged” federal agencies to require such pacts on a case-by-case basis on projects of over $25 million.

A Project Labor Agreement, or PLA, is a job-specific, pre-hire collective bargaining contract attached to a large-scale public works project, such a highway, a dam, a school or an arena.  When required by state governments, as they often are, they force public agencies to award contracts for a given project only to those firms recognizing unions as worker representatives.  A PLA has little, if any, effect upon unionized firms, since they already are committed to union rules.  It is open shop (or “merit shop”) contractors who stand to lose.  If those contractors don’t agree to play the union way, they don’t get work.  A typical agreement requires a general contractor and subcontractors to:  obtain workers from union hiring halls; hire apprentices from union training programs; contribute to union-sponsored benefit plans; obey union-established work rules and job classifications; and force individual workers to pay union dues. 

These agreements have been in use for decades.  The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 authorizes, but does not mandate them.  Mandatory Project Labor Agreements got a green light in March 1993 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Commonwealth of Massachusetts master PLA for the Boston Harbor cleanup.  Since then, PLAs have become much more widespread, especially in Right to Work states, where unions and elected officials often enjoy close ties.  Very often, especially in so-called “private” Project Labor Agreements, unions use high-pressure tactics such as strike threats, pickets and boycotts to persuade contractors to sign.  Currently, six states, each with a large union presence – California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Washington State – require the use of public-sector PLAs under certain circumstances, through either legislation or executive order.              

For over two decades, federal promotion of Project Labor Agreements, or the lack of it, depends upon which party takes over the White House.  On February 1, 1993, less than two weeks in office, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12836, “encouraging” the use of PLAs on federally-funded projects.  The order effectively rescinded an order the previous October by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, which barred such agreements.  Clinton followed this in 1997 with a memorandum urging federal agencies to use PLAs on “large and significant” projects and prepare an accompanying feasibility study.  With the election of George W. Bush as president, the pendulum moved back toward the open shop.  In February 2001, Bush issued Executive Order 13202 (amending it two months later with Executive Order 13208), guaranteeing government neutrality on federally-sponsored or assisted construction projects.  Eight years later, with Barack Obama as president, the pendulum swung again in the union direction.  On February 6, 2009, Obama issued Executive Order 13502, “encouraging” federal agencies to require PLAs on a case-by-case basis on projects costing in excess of $25 million.  The stated purpose was “to promote economy and efficiency in federal procurement.”  The unstated purpose was to help unions.          

A good many states, rather than chafe under this mandate, have reacted by banning Project Labor Agreements.  Of the 22 states now barring them, fully 19 of them took such action after the issuing of Executive Order 13502.  Union Corruption Update explained at length (here and here) how the State of New Jersey came to be among them.  Hurricane Sandy had wrought tremendous devastation along the state’s coastline in late October 2012.  The New Jersey Assembly and Senate early in 2013 each quickly passed a bill by a convincing margin to expand the range of cleanup projects eligible for coverage under the state’s PLA mandate.  These requirements were established back in 2002 by executive order and then by legislation.  But that April, Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed the measure, fulfilling a campaign promise in 2009 to oppose such measures. 

States have good reason to bar these pre-hire arrangements.  Not only do they restrict the range of choices of contractors available to procurement agencies, they also raise the cost of a project without necessarily improving the quality of the workmanship.  Empirical research bears this out.  In 2003, researchers at the Beacon Hill Institute, a think tank affiliated with Suffolk University in Boston, released a study concluding that PLA usage in Boston-area school construction added to bid costs and actual costs on average by a respective 14 percent and 12 percent.  Three years later, the institute, focusing on three school projects in Fall River, Mass., issued a report concluding that PLAs raised costs and created delays in the bidding process; when frustrated local officials decided to pursue the projects without a PLA, the result was a bid cost-saving of $5.8 million.  In 2009, the worldwide consulting firm of Rider Levett Bucknall issued a report for the Department of Veterans Affairs concluding that Project Labor Agreements would raise costs by 5 percent to 9 percent on VA projects in the Denver, New Orleans and Orlando areas.  My 2005 monograph for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, “Project Labor Agreements:  Union Monopoly in Public Works Construction,” explained at length why the case for these agreements doesn’t hold up either in terms of liberty, cost-efficiency or workplace safety.  Likewise, a 2009 Beacon Hill Institute report debunked common assumptions about the efficacy of PLAs.

If states, one by one, are barring the mandatory use of public PLAs, certain lawmakers on Capitol Hill want to impose a federal ban.  That’s what the Government Neutrality in Contracting Act is about.  Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a third-term congressman from South Carolina, along with Sen. David Vitter, R-La., introduced this legislation (H.R. 1671, S. 71) on March 30 to “promote and ensure open competition” and “maintain neutrality towards labor relations” for federally-sponsored or funded construction projects.  The head of each executive agency would award contracts in a manner barring any “bidder, offeror, contractor, or subcontractor” to give preferences to certain applicants on the basis of organizational affiliation.  Vitter, along with Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., had co-sponsored a similar bill in the previous Congress in January 2013.

Supporters of the legislation assert that by inviting participation from as many contractors as possible, government officials will be better able to achieve project cost-containment and resist political capture.  Pamela Volm, current chair of Associated Builders & Contractors, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing more than 20,000 merit shop firms in dozens of chapters across the U.S., remarks:  “By restricting the federal government’s ability to require or promote PLAs, the Government Neutrality in Contracting Act will create more construction jobs and help taxpayers get the best possible construction project at the best possible price by increasing competition, reducing waste, eliminating favoritism in the procurement of federal and federally-assisted construction contracts.  We urge Congress to immediately pass this common-sense legislation and put an end to these crony contracting schemes.”

Union officials have a much different view.  They argue that Project Labor Agreements expand access to construction jobs to those who otherwise wouldn’t have them.  Summarizing a 2011 Cornell University study of 185 Project Labor Agreements nationwide, Mark Ayers, late president of the AFL-CIO Building & Construction Trades Department, stated:  “The Cornell report confirms and illuminates the ‘untold story’ of PLAs.  Not only are PLAs an effective project management tool that delivers ‘on time, on budget’ results…they are extremely effective at providing job and career training opportunities for historically disadvantaged communities.  The bottom line…is that PLAs work.”  Such a view, however, assumes that merit shop contractors, left to their own devices, can’t or won’t hire across a wide range of workers.  This is a highly dubious assumption.  Contractors have every interest in hiring and training in an impartial manner.  Equally to the point, the public has a right to realize cost-savings without sacrifice in workmanship or on-the-job safety.  The implication that nonunion contractors need to be corralled into serving “disadvantaged” communities is another example of egalitarian rhetoric that puts private interests over the public interest.

Government neither should suppress nor promote unionism in its contracting with construction companies.  Its role should be to ensure an open and level playing field, where contracts are freely negotiated.  Under such circumstances, unions on occasion will succeed in convincing contractors to sign a PLA; on occasion, they also will fail.  It is not the job of government at any level to guarantee union jobs.  The Mulvaney-Vitter bill, in seeking to overturn President Obama’s Executive Order 13502, rightly puts the principle of contractual liberty above the interests of labor cartels.   


Report abuse


Your Comments
Question   Razz  Sad   Evil  Exclaim  Smile  Redface  Biggrin  Surprised  Eek   Confused   Cool  LOL   Mad   Twisted  Rolleyes   Wink  Idea  Arrow  Neutral  Cry   Mr. Green

Top Stories
Recent Stories



Email this story
Email this story

If you really want to ban this commenter, please write down the reason:

If you really want to disable all recommended stories, click on OK button. After that, you will be redirect to your options page.