A Bridge to Albany’s Spoils System?

0 March 1, 2010  Federal Construction, State & Local Construction, Transportation & Infrastructure, Uncategorized

TheTruthAboutPLAs.com has followed the Lake Champlain Bridge project labor agreement (PLA) controversy closely (“Update on Lake Champlain Bridge Project Labor Agreement Controversy,” 2/27 and “A Bridge to Government Waste and Discrimination,” 2/16).

The Plattsburgh, N.Y. Press Republican published an Op-Ed today opposing the Lake Champlain Bridge PLA by Becky Meinking, president of ABC Empire State (“Spoils system in bridge project,” 2/27).

The spoils system is an unfortunate practice in American politics in which a political party, after winning an election, gives government jobs and contracts to its supporters. It is fitting that the term was derived from the phrase “to the victor belong the spoils” by New York Sen. William L. Marcy, referring to the victory of the Jackson Democrats in the election of 1828, because the spoils system is alive and well in Albany today.

Consider a proposed anti-competitive scheme orchestrated by the New York Department of Transportation and Big Labor’s political allies in the governor’s administration and Albany that will create jobs for New York’s well-connected construction union members and stifle competition from qualified New York businesses for construction contracts on the Lake Champlain Bridge project between Crown Point and Chimney Point, Vt.

DOT is evaluating whether a project labor agreement (PLA) is appropriate for this $75 million project, of which 10 percent is being funded by the state of New York, 10 percent by the state of Vermont and 80 percent by a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.

The Empire State Chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors is opposed to these special-interest handouts that deny taxpayers the accountability they deserve from government. A PLA is nothing more than Big Labor’s tool to create a monopoly on a construction project such as the Lake Champlain Bridge.

Why else would the New York Construction Trades Councils and elected officials benefiting from Big Labor’s campaign contributions promote a PLA with such enthusiasm?

There are plenty of qualified nonunion contractors employing an existing workforce of skilled and quality nonunion New York employees who could perform this work, if not for the PLA.

The truth is that while any company technically can bid on a PLA project, these agreements thwart competition from qualified New York firms by requiring companies to hire most or all of their employees from union hiring halls.

Some PLAs permit a nonunion contractor to use a limited number of its existing nonunion employees, but those employees must pay union dues for the life of the project and must follow inefficient union work rules that drive up the cost of construction.

In addition, a PLA denies these nonunion employees health and benefit contributions made by their nonunion employer during the life of a PLA project; instead, these contributions are redirected to Big Labor’s trust funds and permanently forfeited unless the employees join and become vested in the union. This creates a huge windfall for Big Labor while victimizing New York’s nonunion workforce and their families.

The Lake Champlain Bridge project is subject to a federal government-determined prevailing-wage-and-benefit-rate under the Davis-Bacon Act, which essentially guarantees that employees who build this bridge are paid New York union-scale wages and benefits — rendering arguments that PLAs are needed to guarantee high wages and benefits irrelevant to this project.

Taxpayers should be concerned that a PLA will discourage competitive bidding from New York’s nonunion contractors, who employ more than seven out of 10 members of New York’s private construction workforce and dominate the construction market in the Champlain Bridge’s surrounding Essex and Washington counties.

Further illustrating the effect of inefficient union work rules and reduced competition on the price of public construction projects as a result of PLAs, a 2006 study by Suffolk University’s Beacon Hill Institute found that PLAs on New York schools add an estimated $27 per square foot to the actual cost of construction, representing an almost 18-percent increase in costs over the average non-PLA project.

Considering the potential added costs and discrimination against New York’s nonunion construction industry, the public would be best served if the NYSDOT required a fair and open competitive bidding process for all New York contractors, regardless of whether they participate in Albany’s pervasive spoils system.

New York taxpayers would benefit from local responsible contractors and residents delivering a quality Lake Champlain Bridge project at the best possible price.

It will take a lot of courage for Albany to reject the PLA and ignore its deep-rooted spoils-system heritage, but at the heart of good government is preserving the ability for everyone — not just a select few — to fairly compete for government jobs and contracts.

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