A Costly Special Interest Deal on the Lake Champlain Bridge?

0 March 23, 2010  State & Local Construction, Transportation & Infrastructure, Uncategorized

The Albany Times Union reported that the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) is soliciting bids for the Lake Champlain Bridge project without a government-mandated project labor agreement (PLA) (“State’s bridge bids avoid union agreement,” 3/19).  It sounds like a win for taxpayers and proponents of fair contracting. But not so fast.

According to a statement critical of the Albany Times Union article, Stanley Gee, Acting Commissioner, NYSDOT, says there is actually no final decision on the PLA.

“The fact is that the decision on whether or not a project labor agreement (PLA) will be utilized for construction of the Lake Champlain Bridge has not yet been made. Indeed the decision was made this week to advertise for bids for the construction project consistent with the Department’s efforts to replace the Lake Champlain Bridge as quickly as possible. The advertisement did not include a provision for a PLA. This action does not preclude the use of a PLA. A decision about the use of a mandatory PLA has not been made.

In reference to another project cited in the article that had a PLA mandated late in the bidding process, Gee defended the use of a PLA.

“Separately, the New York State Department of Transportation has included a PLA on an I-287 project advertisement where we have used PLAs previously on projects in the I-287 corridor in Rockland and Westchester Counties. This PLA has been submitted to the Federal Highway Administration for approval since it is a federally funded project.”

A Big Labor boss in the Post-Starmakes the same stale and misleading argument that PLAs guarantee local workers are hired (“No PLA yet, but NYSDOT is accepting bids for the bridge,”).

Larry Bulman, the business manager for Plumbers and Steam Fitters and also the secretary treasurer and political director for the NYS Pipe Trade Association, said he hopes the NYSDOT will reconsider a Project Labor Agreement.

“We’re happy they’ve attached New York State’s prevailing wages to the project, which are higher than Vermont’s, but we want to make sure we are getting jobs for New York and Vermont workers.

Bulman said a PLA guarantees workers from New York and Vermont are hired for the job.

“PLAs ensure people from local hiring halls are put to work on this project,” he said.

Without a PLA, Bulman said anyone can bid and the lowest bidding construction company is awarded the project.

“They could be from Maine of South Carolina. If they get the job they are free to bring workers from their home state. With a PLA if that same company gets the project they will come do the work, but they will do it with local people,” he said.

Of course, the truth is that PLAs guarantee that most or all workers on a PLA project are union workers. The unions argue a PLA will create jobs for local union members, but there is nothing in a PLA that stops out-of-area union members from working on a PLA project ahead of local and qualified nonunion craft professionals.

Even if this standard Big Labor argument were 100 percent true, PLAs prohibit qualified local nonunion employees from building PLA projects.  Some PLAs allow nonunion employers to use a very small number of their existing skilled and local nonunion workforce (typically less than a maximum of 12 percent of a PLA project’s specific trade can come from a contractor’s “core workforce”). And local nonunion employees must get hired through the union hiring hall (where they are often harrassed or pressured into joining a union), follow unfamiliar and inefficient union work rules and their employers are required to pay benefits into union trust and benefit funds that nonunion employees will never benefit from unless they join a union. 

A recent study found PLAs reduce the take home pay of nonunion employees by almost 20 percent. It’s why nonunion contractors and their employees are discouraged from competiting for contracts on PLA projects.

PLAs are a raw deal for nonunion employees and they are especially unfair for skilled and local nonunion employees hoping to build a project in their backyard with their tax dollars.

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