Boston Globe Editorial Opposes UMass Project Labor Agreement

0 July 5, 2010  School Construction, State & Local Construction, Uncategorized

A Boston Globe editorial opposes the anti-competitive and costly government-mandated project labor agreement (PLA) on $750 million worth of Umass-Boston construction projects (“Public benefits don’t justify labor deal on Umass project,” 7/5).

It comes on the heels of intense media coverage, op-eds and editorials in Massachusetts newspapers of the Umass PLA and The Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby’s sharp criticism of PLAs and Gov. Deval Patrick’s support of these special interest deals that only benefit Big Labor.

Today’s editorial points out that the UMass PLA “is a significant bone to throw to politically powerful construction unions” that Patrick needs help from come election time in November.

Big Labor’s dubious arguments in support of PLAs are rebuked in this editorial:

State law already guarantees that all workers on public projects be paid the “prevailing wage’’ — essentially, the union-negotiated wage — even if they aren’t union members. The state also ensures access to affordable health care. So restricting all bids on the UMass project to firms willing to use union labor is less about protecting the workers than about catering to unions. [snip]

The non-political rationale for restricting bids to firms with union workers is that projects such as the UMass expansion require sophisticated work, and unionized workers tend to be more specialized. But it ought to be within the capability of project overseers to determine which firms are capable of doing the work without enforcing the broad-brush conclusion that union workers are superior.

It’s impossible to say how much, if anything, the union requirement costs taxpayers because there are competing sources of cost and savings. Project labor agreements clearly limit the number of firms that can compete for work, at both the contracting and subcontracting level, and that deprives the project of potential low bidders. But defenders of such labor agreements tout the economic benefits of a smooth-running, on-time project, insisting that the pacts help maintain “labor peace’’ — a term with vaguely threatening intimations.

Maintaining labor standards is laudable. Restricting bids simply to promote unions, without a strong rationale for doing so, is not. Unfortunately, the UMass decision, and Patrick’s support for it, seems more the latter than the former agrees with the Boston Globe’s assessment that PLAs are politically motivated quid pro quo sweetheart deals for Big Labor that reduce competition.

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