Labor Department to Mandate Controversial Project Labor Agreement on Manchester Job Corps Center

0 December 29, 2011  Federal Construction, Uncategorized

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a pre-solicitation on Dec. 22, 2011, for a $20 million to $50 million DOL Job Corps Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, indicating the project will be subject to an anti-competitive and costly project labor agreement (PLA) mandated by the DOL.

Bidding is open only to certified small business contractors willing to agree to the terms and conditions of the DOL’s union-friendly PLA. The DOL issued a sources sought notice Sept. 23, 2011 (DOL111RI20431), to determine if there were enough interested and qualified small business general contractors to designate it a 100 percent small business set-aside.

Controversy concerning the union-favoring PLA mandate will heighten once the project’s solicitation containing the PLA is issued the second week of January.

Update Jan. 30: The DOL solicitation, issued  Jan. 30, 2012, can be read here. Here is the actual PLA and here are the numerous union collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) contractors will have to agree to in addition to the PLA for the life of the project. Bids are due March 21, 2012.

Update Feb. 6: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) issued a press release and sent a letter to the White House asking for President Obama to repeal his pro-PLA Executive Order 13502 and remove the DOL’s PLA mandate on this project. The Union Leader has a piece on the controversy here.

Dec. 23, the New Hampshire Union Leader ran a holiday themed op-ed by ABC New Hampshire/Vermont President Mark Holden. It summarizes the long-running controversy surrounding the DOL’s PLA mandate on the Job Corps Center and the absurdity of this gift to Big Labor at the expense of New Hampshire businesses and workers.

Executive Order 13502: Obama's Gift to Big Labor. Image courtesy of The Boston Globe, "Obama kowtows to labor unions," 10/07/09.

Stalling Job Corps Center to benefit out-of-state unions

By Mark Holden

It may be beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but many New Hampshire construction workers and businesses are expecting a lump of coal in their stockings from the federal government.

In this case, the Grinch is the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), which is planning to build a $35 million Job Corps Center in Manchester with federal tax dollars.  Unfortunately, the DOL is poised to ensure the project is built by out-of-state union labor and union contractors, despite the fact that more than 91 percent of New Hampshire’s construction workforce chooses not to belong to a construction labor union.

The DOL is mandating a union-favoring project labor agreement (PLA) on the Job Corps Center.  Created by unions as a way to circumvent the free market and regain lost market share, a PLA typically requires contractors to replace most or all of their existing workforce with unfamiliar union labor, follow archaic and inefficient union work rules, and pay into underfunded union pension and benefit plans if they want to win contracts.

New Hampshire’s skilled nonunion workers are forced to accept unwanted union representation and pay union dues, yet they will forfeit benefits paid into union pension and benefit plans during the life of the project unless they join a union and become vested in these plans. 

Such humbuggery has the effect of discouraging competition from New Hampshire’s qualified contractors and their local employees.

Reduced competition coupled with costly union red tape needlessly increases construction costs.  Studies by the Beacon Hill Institute in Boston indicate projects subject to prevailing wage laws built with government mandated PLAs are 12 percent and 18 percent more expensive compared to similar non-PLA projects subject to government-determined wage and benefit rates. The research comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Boston’s Big Dig boondoggle, which was built with a PLA mandate.

In short, government-mandated PLAs are a gift to Big Labor at the expense of taxpayers and New Hampshire construction businesses and tradespeople.

If this controversy has the disappointing familiarity of a re-gifted fruitcake, it is because the DOL tried to mandate a PLA on the Job Corps Center in 2009.  In the face of such blatant discrimination, a brave contractor, North Branch Construction of Concord, filed a bid protest against the DOL’s anti-competitive PLA. Instead of proceeding with PLA-free construction subject to fair and open competition – which would result in badly needed local job creation – the DOL canceled the project.

Not to be deterred, the DOL retained the services of a consultant, Hill International, to prepare a report justifying and defending a PLA requirement. The report cost taxpayers $130,000. It was the second PLA report Hill International prepared for the DOL. The first report, which trumpeted the alleged benefits of PLAs on federal construction projects, cost taxpayers $300,000. The latest report is so shoddy and full of pro-PLA bias, taxpayers will wish it came with a gift receipt.

The DOL and the federal government’s discriminatory policy is the product of an executive order signed by President Obama just a few days after moving into the White House in 2009. The measure encourages federal agencies to mandate PLAs on a case-by-case basis on large federal construction projects exceeding $25 million in total cost.

It is no coincidence it steers federal contracts to one of the White House’s and Democrat party’s biggest political patrons: Big Labor.

So while the Grinch has come to town, stealing Christmas hopes and dreams away from The Granite State’s workers and their families, will any of the GOP presidential candidates take a stand against deceptive payback to Big Labor prior to New Hampshire’s Jan. 10 primary?  

All nonunion contractors and their employees want this holiday season is the ability to fairly compete.  Some members of Congress, such as New Hampshire Sen. Ayotte, Rep. Frank Guinta and Rep. Charlie Bass, have stood up for free enterprise and New Hampshire families in support of legislation (S. 119 and H.R. 735) to “preserve open competition and federal government neutrality toward the labor relations of federal government contractors on federal and federally funded construction projects.”

That’s exactly what should happen. The federal government should preserve the right of everyone to fairly compete for jobs, not just a select few.

Congress should pass this legislation or a new president should undo President Obama’s destructive policy catering to well-connected special interests. It’s the only surefire way to keep the federal Grinch at bay.

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Mark Holden is the president of the New Hampshire/Vermont Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. To learn more about anti-competitive PLAs, visit www.TheTruthAboutPLAs.com.

Well said, Mark.

To date, The Government Neutrality in Contracting Act (H.R. 735/S.119) has 170 cosponsors in the House, nearly 30 cosponsors in the Senate, and broad support from industry groups.

Concerned taxpayers can write Congress here to help keep the federal Grinch at bay this holiday season.

Image Courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch

TheTruthAboutPLAs.com readers may recall previous media coverage of the Job Corps Center project, which most recently includes a New Hampshire Union Leader article (“Jobs Corps Center project going forward,” 8/20/11and related press release from U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (“Senator Ayotte Expresses Concerns about Labor Requirement for Manchester Job Corps Project,” 8/19/11) in response to the DOL’s August announcement they will proceed with construction and mandate a PLA:

MANCHESTER — A project labor agreement, which delayed construction of New Hampshire’s Job Corps Center for 21 months, will be a project requirement according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The department announced last week it would move forward with the long-delayed $35 million project off Dunbarton Road. A New Hampshire contractor challenged the requirements two years ago, delaying project construction.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte said in a press release Friday she is concerned that the PLA favors out-of-state unionized contractors over local firms and could drive up the project’s cost.

“The administration’s plan to keep in place the PLA represents yet another senseless government mandate that could put New Hampshire businesses and workers at a competitive disadvantage. A PLA effectively gives unionized firms an unfair advantage over non-union firms, making it less likely that New Hampshire contractors would be able to bid successfully for the work,” said Ayotte. “This is a New Hampshire project, and local contractors should be able to compete for it on a level playing field.”

Project labor agreements usually require companies working on a construction project to provide health care, retirement benefits and apprenticeship programs. And PLAs usually include work rules, safety provisions, dispute resolution and a no-strike clause.

Contractors balked when the Job Corps agreement called for experience with three or more PLAs. North Branch Construction of Concord filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office and that brought the bidding process to a halt.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas said Friday his concern with the original PLA was the prior PLA experience. That meant no New Hampshire firms could qualify to do the work, because no firm had experience with three PLAs, he said.

“My understanding was that was not going to be in there,” Gatsas said. “It should be New Hampshire people doing this project.”

Gatsas said he has not seen the documentation, but noted “This is a project we need to move forward. It’s 300 construction jobs to the city and 135 permanent jobs.”

In response to a request from Ayotte asking to clarify the PLA issue, the DOL wrote that in keeping with a January 2009 executive order by President Obama, construction projects over $25 million should use PLAs. A PLA is appropriate for the $35 million Job Corps project, the department wrote.

Mark Holden, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of New Hampshire/Vermont said: “It is important for all New Hampshire taxpayers to understand the impact of this decision. Requiring non-union contractors to execute union agreements for the project, agreeing to replace their employees with union workers, pay into union funds and abide by union work rules and conditions creates unknown costs that are impossible to plan and bid for and are conditions that make it non-competitive for non-union contractors.

“To suggest that a non-union contractor’s ability to compete would not be impacted by this PLA is untrue. A PLA requirement will have a chilling impact on competition from non-union contractors and will dramatically inflate the construction cost of this taxpayer funded project. At a time when a challenging economy is dependent on real solutions for job creation and accountability for every taxpayer dollar, this decision is unbelievable.”

Joe Casey, president of the New Hampshire Building and Construction Trades Council, said Ayotte and Holden are making a lot of assumptions about the PLA and what it will require. “It all depends on what the project labor agreement is and I have yet to see one for this project,” Casey said. “This is a debate we should have once the Department of Labor releases the project (documents).”

He noted the DOL hired an independent group, Hill International, to determine if a PLA is feasible for the project, but he had not seen the study. “We should all take a step back and see the actual contents of the project labor agreement,” Casey said. “The provisions could benefit New Hampshire contractors and New Hampshire workers.”

He noted the last major federal construction project in New Hampshire was the Berlin prison and the contractors and almost all of the workers came from out-of-state. That prison has yet to open because the federal government has not released operation money.

“That is the type of thing the project labor agreement addresses,” Casey said. “If federal money is coming to the state of New Hampshire, why shouldn’t it stay in New Hampshire with the New Hampshire workforce. At the end of the day, that is what we are looking for.”

Dick Anagnost, a Manchester developer who is chairman of the Job Corps Task Force, told the New Hampshire Union Leader last week that the project will take about 18 months.

He said the Labor Department should take a month to prepare bid specifications. Another month will be needed to solicit bids, and a final month will be needed to review them.

A Job Corps Center will help train economically disadvantaged youth to enter high-growth industries. New Hampshire is among the last states to have a Job Corps Center. The state began efforts 10 years ago to land a center of its own.

The DOL’s 2009 PLA mandate was the first PLA mandated by a federal agency following President Obama’s Feb. 6, 2009 Executive Order 13502, which encourages federal agencies to mandate PLAs on a case-by-case basis on federal construction projects exceeding $25 million in total cost. The DOL’s 2009 PLA mandate was especially unusual because it was issued prior to the Federal Acquisition Regulatory (FAR) Council final rule (pdf), issued April 13, 2010, and effective May 13, 2010, implementing Executive Order 13502 into federal procurement regulations (learn more here).

Similar attempts by federal agencies to mandate PLAs before and after the effective date of the FAR final rule were foiled by ABC contractor-led bid protests (learn more here).

However, Executive Order 13502 and the related FAR rule remain controversial White House gifts to Big Labor likely to increase federal construction costs, reduce economy and efficiency in federal contracting, reduce competition from quality nonunion contractors and their skilled employees, and deny taxpayers the accountability they deserve from government.

TheTruthAboutPLAs.com will be following the DOL Job Corps Center project closely in the coming weeks.

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