The controversy over Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s (D) decision to require contractors to sign a wasteful and discriminatory project labor agreement (PLA) as a condition of performing work on the $285 million reconstruction of I-95’s Whittier Bridge continued to attract attention and remind Bostonians of past PLA failures in their community this week.
Greg Beeman, president of the Massachusetts Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors wrote the following op-ed, published on August 1 by the Lowell Sun.
Gov’s Insistence on PLAs Excludes Majority of State’s Skilled Labor
As a candidate, Deval Patrick pledged to “change the Big Dig culture on Beacon Hill.”
But as governor, he has supported an unfortunate part of the Big Dig culture by insisting that key construction projects be built under the same exclusionary labor policy used on that infamous mega-project.
The Big Dig was built under a union-only project labor agreement. PLAs exclude nonunion workers by requiring unions to be the “sole and exclusive” source of all job-site labor.
In advance of the 2010 election, Patrick agreed to a PLA on a $750 million, 10-year UMass Boston rebuilding project. This winter, unofficial word was out that there would also be a PLA on the $260 million rebuilding of the Longfellow Bridge, which connects Boston and Cambridge. It was the first PLA on a state infrastructure project since the Big Dig.
With Longfellow in mind, in February Transportation Secretary Richard Davey told a construction-industry group that there would be no PLAs on the other large bridge projects in the pipeline. Based on this, companies formed the joint ventures that are common on these projects and spent considerable time and money preparing bids.
But last month, just before a key bid submission was due, the Patrick administration reversed itself and announced there would be a PLA on the $285 million reconstruction of I-95’s Whittier Bridge across the Merrimack River in Amesbury.
The Whittier PLA will result in the vast majority of the Massachusetts construction workforce being shut out of the project.
Unionstats.com reports that 85 percent of Massachusetts construction workers choose not to affiliate with a union. In 2007, Gov. Patrick’s then-chief economist at the Department of Workforce Development wrote that “the percentage of construction industry union members might fall in the 15-17 percent range.”
Shortly after Davey’s speech, MassDOT spokesman Michael Verseckes told a Worcester reporter that PLAs are “typically not issued” for road and bridge projects. Verseckes changed his tune this month, when he told the Newburyport Daily News that the Whittier PLA is “prudent” because it “may help ensure the bridge is finished on time and on budget.”
This sounds a lot like the “efficiency” the governor cited when he agreed to unions’ request for the UMass PLA. Gov. Patrick himself told the Boston Business Journal the Longfellow Bridge PLA will reduce project costs based on evidence “from other states.”
But 13 states, including Maine and even labor-friendly Michigan, have banned PLAs on statefunded construction projects.
While PLAs increase costs, they don’t increase wages. Everyone working on public projects – both union and open shop – is already covered under state and federal prevailing-wage laws.
Unions argue that PLAs guarantee labor peace. But a study by Suffolk University’s Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) of federal construction projects between 2001 and 2008, when PLAs were prohibited on the federal level, didn’t find a single job beset by labor disputes. When asked by The Boston Globe, Secretary Davey couldn’t cite any local projects in recent years that suffered from labor unrest.
Massachusetts residents who remember the Big Dig also question the benefits of PLAs. A 2010 Suffolk University/7 News poll found that 69 percent of state residents oppose compelling contractors to hire all their workers through unions.
When Fall River lifted a PLA on local school projects in 2006, the number of subcontractor bids almost doubled and prices fell by nearly 15 percent. ABHI study of Massachusetts school construction found that PLAs added at least 12 percent to construction costs.
Unions respond that the Whittier project is complex and they claim to provide a more skilled labor force. Yet Davey himself acknowledged to the Boston Globe that nonunion firms are capable of completing the project.
There’s nothing wrong with Gov. Patrick supporting unions or with unions supporting him. But it is wrong for elected officials to make policy that benefits only unions at the expense of the majority of workers and the taxpayers who foot the bill.
When that happens, as we saw with the Big Dig, we pay a high price indeed.
Greg Beeman is president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts.
Learn more about this controversy here.