PLAs Are Political Payback To Big Labor

0 February 16, 2010  State & Local Construction, Uncategorized

There is a textbook example of PLAs being used as political payback to Big Labor from politicians that need union support brewing in Iowa right now. This is a story about America’s most politically endangered incumbent governor and the unrealized dreams of one special interest group – Big Labor.

When Democrats took over Iowa’s state government in 2006, Big Labor was ready to change Iowa’s labor landscape. The state’s long held status as a Right to Work state was in serious jeopardy.

Right to Work laws ensure that workers aren’t forced to pay union dues as a condition of their employment. Repealing Iowa’s Right to Work law would dramatically alter the state’s employment environment and would be a coup for Big Labor.

Despite sizable majorities in both chamber of Iowa’s legislature, Big Labor’s allies have been unable to affect this drastic – and unpopular – change. Although Right to Work repeal legislation has been considered every year since 2006, it still has yet to be enacted.

The most recent attempt to do so is currently being considered by the Iowa House Labor Committee, but is unlikely to become law.

Once it became clear that repeal of Iowa’s Right to Work status was out of reach, Big Labor turned its attention to another item on their to do list: enacting a state prevailing wage requirement. Although prevailing wage requirements are a lower profile issue, they still negatively affect taxpayers by significantly increasing construction costs.

This also turned into a Herculean task, as Iowa lawmakers learned about the expensive impact prevailing wage requirements have on public construction. Studies of the federal Davis-Bacon (prevailing wage) requirement show that it can increase construction costs by almost 40 percent in some cases and numerous studies found similar results at the state level as well.

Again, despite Democrat majorities in the General Assembly, Big Labor’s priority still languished. Sensible lawmakers just couldn’t bring themselves to change how Iowa does business just to benefit one special interest group.

At this point, Big Labor is angry. They spent big money to get Democrats elected in 2006 and got very little perceived benefit in return. This is where Governor Culver comes in. He is down big in the polls with Election Day less than 10 months away. It’s likely that the governor and his political advisors felt they needed to find a way to satisfy Big Labor in order to get their money and support in 2010.

At the same time, the governor didn’t want average Iowans to believe he was doing union bosses a favor in exchange for political support.

Tough problem indeed.

Apparently, the answer was to slap Big Labor with one hand, but give them a high five with the other.

On February 3, this is exactly what Governor Culver did. He walked into the Iowa Building and Construction Trade annual conference, told attendees and the media that he did not support Labor’s number one priority – Right to Work repeal – but then issued an executive order encouraging state agencies to consider project labor agreements (PLAs) on state funded construction.

Talk about trying to thread the proverbial needle!

And then story gets better.

Less then one week after Governor Culver issued this order, state officials announced they would execute PLAs on nearly $200 million worth of planned prison construction.

Are Iowa taxpayers to believe that in the five days after Executive Order 22 was issued, the Iowa Department of Corrections carefully considered all the facts and decided to go with PLAs?

Maybe an excerpt from the Des Moines Register’s coverage of the Department of Correction’s decision to mandate PLAs on the two prison projects can shed some light on this question (Our emphasis added).

“We are just starting to learn about this process,” Baldwin said in an interview. “But we will figure out what it is, get input from both sides, and try to craft a document that is sensitive to everybody.”

It doesn’t sound like the folks at the Department of Corrections even know what a PLA is. And why would they? They didn’t require PLAs other recent projects.  Here is another excerpt from the Register’s coverage:

Iowa Corrections Director John Baldwin said Tuesday his department didn’t use such agreements when three new state prisons were built in the 1990s in Clarinda, Newton and Fort Dodge. But an executive order signed by Gov. Chet Culver last week requires state officials to consider using project labor agreements on all large-scale state government construction projects.

It doesn’t look like they spent much time considering the impact of PLAs either or their sad, well documented history in Iowa.

In 2002, the Polk County Board of Supervisors signed a PLA with the Central Iowa Building and Construction Trades Council for the Iowa Event Center project. This project included a 17,000-seat arena and meeting and exhibit halls. The Board of Supervisors claimed that the PLA was necessary to “keep the project on time, keep it on budget and complete it in a safe manner.”

A 2006 study by the Public Interest Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational institute in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, found that the PLA failed on all three counts and created unnecessary burdens for local workers, taxpayers and businesses.

Here is an excerpt from the study:

One might think that completing a project on budget, on time and safely would be the goal for each and every construction project, but apparently the Polk County Board of Supervisors felt these goals could not be accomplished on the Iowa Events Center project without a project labor agreement. Having been granted the PLA, was the Iowa Events Center completed on budget, on time and safely? No. Instead, workers were frozen out of the opportunity to work, businesses were not allowed to compete and the taxpayers were forced to pay even more for the Iowa Events Center construction because of the cost overruns of the project. The project labor agreement for the Iowa Events Center project was an unnecessary burden on the workers, businesses and taxpayers of Iowa.

With all this evidence to consider, why would the Iowa Department of Corrections publicly announce that they plan to require contractors on these projects to sign PLAs so quickly?

Here at, this smells like political payback to us.  It is clear that the department has not carefully considered the impact of PLAs.  Additionally, it doesn’t appear as though PLAs were even on the department’s radar before Governor Culver stepped in for the union bosses he is trying to court.

This is quid pro quo politics at its worst and a prime example of PLAs as payback to Big Labor at the taxpayers’ expense.

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