Government-Mandated Project Labor Agreements Harm Union Contractors and Tradespeople

1 August 24, 2011  State & Local Construction

The debate surrounding government-mandated project labor agreements (PLAs) is often framed by the media and elected officials as a dispute pitting union signatory contractors and their union employees against nonunion contractors and their nonunion employees. However, a recent lawsuit attacking government-mandated PLAs on $6 billion worth of taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects through 2014 in New York City sheds light on unsung victims of these controversial, anti-competitive and costly special interest handouts that deny hardworking taxpayers the accountability they deserve from government contracts: Union contractors and some construction trade union members.

In October 2010, two construction trade groups affiliated with construction trade unions, the Building Industry Electrical Contractors Association (BIECA) and United Electrical Contractors Association (UECA), filed a complaint against the City of New York (NYC) because of their widespread use of government-mandated PLAs in The Building Industry Electrical Contractors Association et al v. City of New York, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 10-8002.

The plaintiffs maintained that NYC violated the National Labor Relations Act, Municipal Law and New York Labor Law because of PLAs mandated by NYC government. The complaint argued that instead of acting to secure the best deal for the taxpayers, the city was using PLAs to handpick favored unions and contractors to perform the vast majority of the work. The plaintiffs also argued the alleged cost savings of $300 million over four years PLA advocates claimed the PLA would deliver to the city were “speculative and illusory” and were calculated using flawed methodology based on erroneous assumptions by Hill International and other consultants paid by city agencies to prepare PLA feasibility studies for various NYC public works projects.

Unfortunately, on August 4, 2011, U.S. Southern District Judge Robert Patterson ruled in favor of the city and PLA opponents.

Reuters reports:

Alan Pollack, who represented the plaintiffs, said his clients will appeal. The ruling will hurt city taxpayers by driving up construction costs, he said.

As the case makes its way through the appeals process, the public, media and elected officials should recognize an important fact from this lawsuit: Union contractors and union employees are often harmed by government-mandated PLAs.

In fact, the union contractors and union employees aided by this suit are opposed to government-mandated PLAs for the same reasons nonunion contractors and nonunion employees loathe government-mandated PLAs. In this case, contractors belonging to the plaintiff associations, the BIECA and UECA, were effectively excluded from the competitive bidding process for NYC contracts subject to a government-mandated PLA because of their existing contracts and relationships with other unions that are not favored or part of the NYC PLAs. The case’s fact pattern is similar to common complaints from nonunion contractors that government-mandated PLAs discourage, if not effectively exclude, nonunion contractors from competing for contracts and deny qualified nonunion tradespeople the opportunity to build a taxpayer funded construction project because they are not affiliated with unions that drafted and promoted the PLA.

This is not an isolated incident. Union contractor associations, contractors and union members excluded from PLA negotiations and PLA contracts have opposed government-mandated PLAs for years.

For example, in 2009, New Jersey’s Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority was sued by the International Steelworkers Union to get on the list of unions eligible to perform work on a PLA covering a Military Ocean Terminal site.

Associated General Contractors (AGC), a national construction trade association that often negotiates union collective bargaining agreements for its union members, explains how government-mandated PLAs negatively impact their union contractor members (and nonunion members too) in this document.

Finally, here is a link to other examples of union contractors and associations opposing PLA schemes.

Anti-Competitive Favoritism Inherent in NYC PLAs
The City of New York enacted a series of PLAs entered into by and between various NYC agencies procuring contracts to build public works projects and The Building Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and Vicinity and its affiliated Local Unions (known as the BCTC).  Pursuant to the BCTC’s negotiations with NYC, only those unions belonging to the BCTC were permitted to become participating signatory unions to each of NYC’s PLAs and benefit from being recognized as the collective bargaining representative for all persons who perform work on PLA projects.

Consisting of 27 contractors, the BIECA is a trade association that has entered into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with Local 363, United Electrical Workers of America, IUJAT.  Local 363 is not a member of the BCTC. Pursuant to Local 363’s CBA with the BIECA, the BIECA and its contractors have agreed to recognize Local 363 as the “sole and exclusive bargaining representative of all electrical workers…who are or may hereinafter become employed” by any BIECA contractor. Their CBA requires employees of BIECA contractors to become members of Local 363 and BIECA contractors must contribute to pension, benefit, welfare and education funds designated by and affiliated with Local 363.  The terms of the NYC PLAs conflict directly with BIECA CBAs.

The UECA has been engaged in ongoing collective bargaining negotiations with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3. Pursuant to a December 7, 1995 Settlement Agreement with the National Labor Relations Board, UECA contractors are required to contribute to Building Trades pensions and benefit funds. In contrast, the NYC PLAs require contractors to contribute to BCTC’s benefit funds, which violates the BIECA’s settlement agreement with IBEW Local 3.

The facts of the case demonstrate that the terms and conditions in the PLAs used in NYC effectively excluded union contractor members of the BIECA and UECA from winning contracts subject to the PLA.

For instance, the PLA prevented Local 363 journeymen and apprentices members and any existing journeymen and apprentices of BIECA contractors from working on PLA projects because they are not represented by the unions favored in the BCTC’s PLA.  The existing CBA between Local 363 and BIECA contractors forbids contractors from hiring tradespeople represented by other unions, which prevented the plaintiff from bidding on the contracts subject to the BCTC’s PLA.

In addition, the PLA would have forced BIECA and UECA contractors to pay fringe benefits into the plans affiliated and managed by BCTC unions favored in the NYC PLA. Since existing UECA and BIECA agreements require contractors to make benefit contributions into funds managed and affiliated with local unions not favored by the BCTC, these contractors must pay benefits to both the BCTC benefit funds identified in the PLA and the existing benefit funds designated in their current union agreements.

These double benefit expenses increase labor costs and put UECA and BIECA contractors at a severe disadvantage when submitting a competitive bid.  In addition, the union members employed by the plaintiffs would not receive any benefit contributions made to BCTC benefit plans unless they joined these BCTC unions and became vested in these BCTC favored plans. In short, the NYC PLAs would have resulted in a windfall for BCTC plans at the expense of many union members employed by UECA and BIECA contractors.

The fact that certain union members and signatory contractors are excluded and discriminated against by PLAs undermines the false claim that PLAs are needed to ensure a high quality project built by a safe, well-trained and efficient union workforce. Like their nonunion counterparts, the BIECA and UECA contractors and their employees are qualified and experienced, but they are being harmed by the anti-competitive intent of PLA schemes. The real purpose of these agreements is to create a monopoly for handpicked unions to supply labor to construction jobsites and deny qualified contractors and their skilled an employees the right to compete for these contracts and jobs.

Consultants’ Pro-PLA Studies Flawed, Says Complaint
The plaintiffs argue that the pro-PLA studies are flawed. Cost savings the studies say a PLA will deliver to NYC are illusory. According to the plaintiffs brief in opposition to the defendants’ motions to dismiss:

…each study concludes that by obtaining certain union concessions, including standardizing work hours, overtime hours, work shift rules and holidays for each of the various construction trades along with “no strike” provisions and common grievance procedures, the City would realize substantial cost savings on projects covered by these PLAs…However, as detailed in the accompanying Tuerck Affidavit, the PLA studies are based on the flawed and unsupported methodology that only BCTC contractors historically bid on and perform City work.  The PLA studies further conclude that by obtaining certain concessions from the BCTC unions under the City PLAs, the City saves money.

For example, the original complaint explains that the non-BCTC contractors like the BIECA and UECA already have cost saving labor practices promised by the PLA, so a PLA is not needed and the alleged cost savings are bogus:

By artificially limiting the universe of contractors who perform City work to BCTC contractors, the authors of the feasibility studies give false and unwarranted credit to the PLAs for concessionary cost savings that would have been realized in the absence of a PLA and through the competitive bidding process.

For example, when the Local 363 CBA is compared with the CBA of Local 3, which is a BCTC signatory union, it is evident that certain cost savings the City claims can only be accomplished by concessions negotiated by a PLA, are already built into Local 363’s CBA.

Since the signatory unions mandate a seven hour workday, the feasibility study assumes that by adopting a PLA which mandates an eight hour workday, the City is provided with cost savings benefits by saving an hour of overtime pay per day over the course of the project.  Thus, the PLA would reduce costs by 12.5% (1/8) of the total number of hours worked, multiplied by the difference between overtime and straight time pay.

However, this presumed cost savings ignores the fact that Local 363’s CBA, Article 6, Section A (a), stipulates that a “regular week’s work shall consist of forty (40) hours, divided into any five (5) consecutive days between Monday through Sunday inclusive, of eight (8) hours each, performed between the hours of 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM.”  Had the City considered local 363’s CBA as their baseline, or the work rules and practices of a UECA contractors, it would have already realized a savings that would have obviated the need for any cost savings through the enactment of a PLA.

Nonunion contractors are also not restricted by the BCTC’s inefficient CBA rules that the PLA would allegedly address, resulting in cost savings that the plaintiffs call illusory. The brief continues:

What each of the PLA studies fails to address is whether PLAs offer any real cost savings when compared to projects performed in the absence of a PLA, where the actual qualified bidding pool of contractors – including other union and nonunion contractors – is able to bid for City work through the competitive bidding process.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Hill International and other consultants have produced a flawed study to justify a government-mandated PLA without considering that there is a skilled and experienced alternative to BCTC labor and contractors signatory to BCTC unions.

A number of the firms selected by government agencies to evaluate the feasibility of PLAs have clear conflicts of interest with Big Labor that prevent them from providing an honest and accurate assessment of the impact of government-mandated PLAs on cost, competition and quality.

For example, the in the summer of 2009 Pennsylvania Department of General Services relied on the questionable findings of the Keystone Research Center (KRC) to justify the use of PLAs on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of prison construction even though the KRC board was heavily dominated by construction union members and a portion of the KRC’s annual revenue came from construction trade unions (learn more about this scandal here).

Can the Appeals Process Deliver Justice?
Regardless of how this case plays out in the courts, it is clear that anti-competitive and costly provisions in NYC’s government-mandated PLAs have harmed the plaintiffs representing union contractors and their union employees just as much as these agreements have harmed nonunion firms and tradespeople in the NYC area.

It is also clear that the process used to justify these PLA schemes is rife with errors, corruption and deception.

Anti-competitive and costly government-mandated PLAs have no place in a fair and open market.

Why not let the best contractors and employees with the best skills and experience compete? NYC taxpayers can only best be served via fair and open competition.

Check back with for updates on this case.

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One Response to Government-Mandated Project Labor Agreements Harm Union Contractors and Tradespeople

Government-Mandated Project Labor Agreements Harm Union Contractors and Tradespeople August 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm

[…] v. City of New York, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 10-8002.…Tagged as: Building Industry Electrical Contractors Association, New York, PLAs, United Electrical […]

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