Jim Waters, vice president of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank, penned an interesting column about the discriminatory nature of government-mandated project labor agreements (PLAs).
Here is an excerpt from “Local PLAs bite the hand feeding the beast,” 9/24:
Prejudice at the lunch counter may have disappeared, but other types of discrimination remain alive and well in America – and have surprising supporters.
For example, President Barack Obama signed an executive order last year creating Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) on large public-construction projects.
Labor unions love PLAs. They impede non-union contractors by forcing them to change their entire approach to business – no matter how successful their operations – if they want to compete for PLA jobs.
PLA agreements often require non-union workers to join unions, be hired through union halls, pay union dues and they or their companies must donate to union pension funds — even though they will never benefit from such “contributions.”
“These are blatantly discriminatory rules against non-union shops,” wrote Michael Thompson, president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.
The discrimination is widespread, since – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – 85 percent of construction workers don’t belong to a union.
Shouldn’t America’s first black president be especially sensitive about such unfairness?
The most famous PLA racket to date — uncoincidentally the most expensive highway project in America’s history — was Boston’s “Big Dig” project. It replaced Boston’s six-lane elevated Interstate 93 and included a tunnel under the harbor. The project, initially estimated at $2.2 billion, ended up costing more than $14 billion.
Kentucky’s local Big Labor lackeys, uh, I mean, “politicians” salivate at the chance to reduce competition for big ticket, local school-construction projects and steer the work toward their union pals.
Associated General Contractors of Kentucky filed suit after the Carter County school district signed a PLA with a union group for construction of a new $10 million Tygart Elementary School.
The association is defending its hundreds of member companies, which would get shut out of contracts before any bids were even accepted. It also sees as unfair the fact that some school-board members who voted to approve the deal with the Tri-State Building and Construction Trades Council are members of the 14 unions that form the council.
Can anyone say “conflict of interest?”
Perhaps the worst discrimination involves local companies.
When the Tygart project was first bid, JMK Electric Co. LLC in Grayson – which has worked on Carter County school projects for a quarter-century – offered a bid “more than $200,000 lower than the lowest bid,” said Kelly Newland, who along with brother Bob Newland, owns JMK.
“We are Carter County residents,” said Kelly Newland. “We are property owners. Me and my family pay our taxes here.”
Yet if this PLA stands, his company gets shut out — unless it agrees to union scales.
The school board’s PLA vote “just knocked us off our feet,” Newland said. “I was so intimidated by the 50 or 60 union members that showed up with their (union agents).”
The civil rights movement was as much about eliminating such intimidation as it was ending discrimination. The two go hand in hand – in both the civil rights and the “labor rights” movements.
Do we really want policies that discriminate against local companies whose owners and employees pay taxes that support the school district that bids out the project?
Do we really want labor agreements that add millions to new school buildings just because a minority of the construction industry doesn’t want to compete?
Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed his children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
We’ve gotten rid of prejudice at the lunch counter. Now, let’s do the same in the workplace by judging workers based on their skills rather than their union status.
[Note: Links added by TheTruthAboutPLAs.com.]
[Update: Here is a great resource on the case and lawsuit and a Journal-Times (Grayson, KY) article about the PLA being rejected “School board rescinds PLA after latest Tygart bids rejected,” 10/8/10.]
While it is true that union membership (or lack of union membership) isn’t a status covered under the same legal protections as someone’s sex, race, religion etc., the issue of PLAs needlessly harming and discriminating against a group of people is a sad reality.
In addition, the link between government-mandated PLAs and actual racial discrimination is very real.
A number of minority and women construction contracting groups oppose PLA schemes and argue that government-mandated PLAs result in de facto discrimination against the construction industry’s Minority/Woman Owned Business Enterprises (MWDBEs) and their employees. See related blog posts here.
Harry Alford, President of the National Black Chamber of Commerce has long maintained that there is a discriminatory element (along racial lines) to government-mandated PLAs:
“PLAs amount to de facto segregation … African-American workers are significantly underrepresented in all crafts of construction union shops … this problem has been persistent during past decades and there appears to be no type of improvement coming … PLAs are anti-free-market, non-competitive, and, most of all, discriminatory.”
– National Black Chamber of Commerce
“Show me a PLA and I will show you Jim Crow employment plus a locking out of most Black-owned firms that happen to be nonunion most of the time. A Project Labor Agreement is a license to discriminate against Black workers.
Anywhere a PLA pops up, the National Black Chamber of Commerce will be there to scrutinize, challenge and call out any discrimination. Eventually our leaders and the unions will realize that it is 2009 and doing the right thing is the only thing they can do.”
– Harry Alford, “A Great Opportunity to Integrate the Construction Unions”
“PLAs greatly reduce the number of minorities, women and minority businesses working on a project.”
– Harry Alford, “Economic Apartheid, Construction Unions and the City of Philadelphia”
“It is the policy of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, Inc. to oppose Project Labor Agreements. This opposition is based on the fact that African American workers are significantly underrepresented in all crafts of construction union shops. This problem has been persistent during the past decades and there appears to be no type of improvement coming within the next ten years.
There have been rouses of diversity pre-apprenticeship training programs during the past twenty years but no increase in diversity at the apprenticeship to journeymen levels. The higher incidence of union labor in the construction industry, the lower African American employment will be realized. This is constant throughout the nation.
Also, and equally important, the higher use of union shops brings a correlated decrease in the amount of Black owned businesses being involved on a worksite.”
– NBCC Policy Statement on Project Labor Agreements
“The National Black Chamber of Commerce, Inc. is firmly against union-only Project Labor Agreements. Such agreements result in anti-small business activity which is predatory to Black owned businesses and curtail the potential for employment opportunities within urban areas. No company or individual should be forced to sign a union agreement before given the opportunity to participate in our capitalistic system. PLAs are anti-free market, non-competitive and, most of all, discriminatory.”
– NBCC Testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Small Business for “How Union-Only Labor Agreements are Harming Women- and Minority-Owned Businesses” hearing, August 6, 1998
Some PLAs acknowledge the inherent discrimination against MWDBEs in typical PLAs – because most MWDBE construction businesses are not signatory to unions – by exempting MWDBEs from being covered by a PLA or specific provisions that would injure participation from MWDBE businesses. Often, these unique “carve outs” fail to entice MWDBE participation for a variety of reasons.
When deciding whether to support or oppose a government-mandated PLA on a construction project, it is important for the construction community and public officials to understand the discriminatory impact of PLAs on MWDBEs and their employees as well as the non-protected group of nonunion contractors and their employees. It is the first step of getting rid of discrimination in the workplace and judging construction industry professionals on their skills and not their union status.