Rendell Administration Love Affair With Big Labor Stalls Prison Construction Projects and Slows Job Growth for Pennsylvanians

2 March 17, 2010  State & Local Construction, Uncategorized

There is renewed interest in the delayed construction of over $800 million worth of prison construction in Pennsylvania.

As regular readers of remember, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) promised the Pennsylvania construction unions in 2008 that the Department of General Services (DGS) would require contractors to sign wasteful and discriminatory project labor agreements (PLAs) in order to work on over $800 million in upcoming state correctional institution construction.

This promise was a condition of a sweetheart deal between Rendell and the powerful Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trade Council, in which the council promised to support the prison construction appropriation through the state legislature in exchange for government-mandated PLAs on the prison work.

Fast forward to March 2010, despite a significant public relations campaign, a serious legislative inquiry and ridiculously inflated initial bids, the Rendell administration is still fighting to keep their handout to Big Labor attached to the projects.

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Here’s an excerpt from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article (“Dispute Between Three Builders Delays Prisons,” 3/14) describing the situation:

State officials wanted to start work months ago on the first of three new prisons to ease crowding in the corrections system, a problem that has forced 2,000 inmates to be shipped out of state.

But a groundbreaking date for the first new State Correctional Institution, to be built in Centre County, is still not known, and a major reason can be summed up in three words — Project Labor Agreement.

Rendell administration officials and labor unions favor PLAs, but nonunion builders don’t, and the competition between union and nonunion builders for the lucrative prison construction work has been fierce.

In 2008, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration signed a deal with union contractors to use PLAs to build the new prisons. The first prison — SCI Benner, to be located in Benner Township near the existing SCI Rockview — will cost about $200 million and hold 2,000 inmates.

A second new prison will be twice that size — holding 4,000 inmates and costing about $400 million. It will be built near the aging SCI Graterford in suburban Philadelphia and will be the new home for its 3,700 inmates. The current prison is to be emptied and mothballed.

Though the Benner and Graterford projects are months late in getting under way, the state now hopes to award contracts for them this spring and break ground this summer.

A third new prison, holding 2,000 prisoners and also costing about $200 million, is to go in Fayette County, at a site still to be announced. The goal is to have that project under way late this year, with all three prisons to be completed in about three years.

Although the Corrections Department operates the state’s system of 27 prisons, the three construction projects are being handled by the Department of General Services, which has been tangling with a group of nonunion contractors over the labor agreements since last summer.

General Services agreed two years ago with a group of politically powerful labor unions — the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council — to use the agreements for the prisons.

Construction “will require that labor organizations affiliated with the Building Trades will be the exclusive bargaining agents for all construction labor trades and crafts workers on each such project,” states a letter signed in April 2008 by James Creedon, secretary of the Department of General Services and a Rendell appointee, and Frank Sirianni, president of the state Building and Construction Trades Council.

Despite the obvious need to get this construction underway, both due to prison overcrowding and to help with the staggering unemployment in the construction industry, the Rendell administration continues to insist that PLAs need to be utilized on these projects.

Here is a second excerpt from the Post-Gazette article:

The request for an injunction to stop the Benner project ended in August when the state rejected all six proposals it had received because all of them were too high — meaning they exceeded the $200 million budgeted for the work.

But legal wrangling resumed in September when General Services sought bids for the new Graterford prison. Nonunion firms again sued over the PLA requirement but this time, Judge Pellegrini ruled in the state’s favor, denying the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to stop the project.

In his ruling, he said, “The public would be harmed” if he granted the injunction because it would delay efforts to ease overcrowded and possibly dangerous conditions in state prisons. The decision is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The Benner project now has been delayed for nine months. Mr. Creedon said it’s ironic that with hundreds of construction workers out of work, the opponents of the labor agreements have prevented the prison projects from getting started and putting people to work.

New Benner construction proposals were sought last week and a contract could be awarded by early May.

“We can’t wait around any longer,” Mr. Creedon said, adding that he hoped the Benner prison work would begin by early summer.

PLAs won’t be mandated this time for the Benner prison, a decision that Diane Tokarsky, a lawyer for nonunion builders, called “encouraging.”

However, a PLA will be required when the new bids are sought for the Graterford prison project this spring, said General Services spokesman Ed Myslewicz. The department will do so because it has a court decision affirming the use of the agreement for that project, he said.

This is just another example of PLAs as political payback to Big Labor at the expense of the taxpayers.

The Engineering News-Record (ENR) also covered this story through a reprint of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article available here.

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2 Responses to Rendell Administration Love Affair With Big Labor Stalls Prison Construction Projects and Slows Job Growth for Pennsylvanians

professional March 22, 2010 at 4:14 pm

The problem is that your untimely protests are only keeping people out of work in a very poor economy. The PLA should be debated but not at the cost of thousands of jobs.

BenBrubeck March 22, 2010 at 10:54 pm

I respectfully disagree.

Doesn’t the government have the responsibility to make sure that all taxpayers, not just political supporters (Big Labor), have a fair shot to compete for those jobs (which are also paid for by their tax dollars) and help deliver to taxpayers the best possible product at the best possible price? Officials should not be attaching these costly special interest deals to public construction projects. They are the ones that should be held accountable.

The officials at the Benner jail rebid the project because the costs were over-budget under the PLA. The PLA and not the legal challenge was responsible for this delay.

Isn’t the connection obvious?

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