In New Jersey, legislation is moving quickly through the State Legislature that would authorize the use of wasteful and discriminatory project labor agreement (PLA) mandates on even more construction projects than currently are permitted under law. Should this bill reach Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) desk, many merit shop leaders will be asking themselves whether Gov. Christie will uphold his campaign pledge to oppose PLA mandates, or if election year politics and the recent outreach to Gov. Christie by organized labor will trump good policy.
Although only 23 percent of its construction industry workforce chooses to belong to a labor organization, New Jersey is considered by many to be a construction union stronghold. By 2002, the construction unions were able to leverage their political muscle and Democrat control of the state’s government to secure an executive order from former Gov. Jim McGreevey (D). The executive order was then codified by A. 1926, a bill authorizing the use of government-mandated PLAs on a limited number and type of public works projects costing more than $5 million. In addition, this law protected state and local governments from legal claims that PLA mandates violate the state’s competitive bidding laws (in response to key NJ PLA-related legal cases, George Harms Construction Co. v. New Jersey Turnpike and Tormee Const. Inc. v. Mercer County Imp. Auth.) – a legal tactic that was successful in defeating government-mandated PLAs in New Jersey prior to 2002.
A decade later in December 2012, Senate President Stephen M.Sweeney (D) introduced and fast-tracked legislation (S.2425) that would expand the 2002 PLA law to authorize the use of PLAs on highways, bridges, pumping stations, and water and sewage treatment plants, all of which are excluded under existing law. While this legislation would not mandate the use of PLAs on these projects, it will increase their use and provide the same inoculation for state and local governments as the 2002 law against legal claims related to the state’s competitive bidding laws.
Sen. Sweeney and the Senate Democrats are claiming this bill is important because it would ensure local construction workers are employed on Superstorm Sandy recovery projects. But readers of this blog know that PLA mandates do not ensure a local workforce on public construction projects. They are nothing more than Big Labor handouts at the taxpayers’ expense. Not only will this bill open the door to the waste of taxpayer dollars, it will also ensure the vast majority of New Jersey’s hardworking and well-trained construction workforce will not have an opportunity to compete for critical recovery projects in their own communities.
It’s also worth noting that Sen. Sweeney makes $207,000 a year as a paid organizer for the International Association of Ironworkers (BSOIW), a union whose members typically benefit from PLA mandates on public construction projects. New Jersey Ironworkers’ locals, in particular, would profit from this proposed expansion of the PLA Act because they often perform significant work on bridge projects. Absent a PLA, this work could be assigned to contractors signatory to other competing trade unions, or qualified nonunion contractors and their employees through a normal competitive bidding process.
Considering the way Big Labor has welcomed others who tried to help with Sandy relief work, it is not surprising they pushed their allies in Trenton to advance pro-PLA legislation.
Big Labor’s allies in the New Jersey Legislature may not want to let this disaster pass without providing a political handout to their in-state benefactors, but as noted by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R) in a media report about the bill’s passage:
“So in these days post-Sandy, we’ve been called back to debate only one bill,” he said. “This is one bill that has the potential to change that recovery estimate, if the cost estimates are right, from 10 completed projects to 9 completed projects.”
As this column by John Schoonejongen points out, this bill could be a political maneuver by Sweeney to undermine the public and Big Labor’s support of Gov. Christie for re-election and galvanize Big Labor behind Democrat challengers.
It is not entirely clear whether this bill will survive the legislative process. The Laborers International Union, who recently endorsed Gov. Christie for re-election, opposes the bill. This is a unique position for the Laborers to adopt considering their long history of supporting PLA mandates. It stands to reason that the Laborers’ union believes opening these projects up to PLAs – and other construction trade unions as a result – will take money out of their pockets. The Laborer’s union support of Gov. Christie and opposition to this legislation puts them at odds with the staunchly pro-PLA and pro-Democrat agenda of other NJ construction unions.
Our guess is the various unions will sort out their differences and Big Labor’s allies in the NJ legislature will pass a bill they all support. Then it will be up to Gov. Christie to veto the bill, or allow it to become law.
Despite the governor’s tough rhetoric on labor unions in the past, the recent endorsement by the Laborers union shows that this relationship is improving. In fact, much to the joy of the Building Construction Trades Department President Sean McGarvey’s Twitter account handlers, Gov. Christie is wearing a New Jersey construction trades pin on his lapel on the cover of last week’s Time magazine.
Despite his relationship with organized labor, Gov. Christie addressed PLA reform in his document “88 Ways Chris Christie Will Fix New Jersey.” While this document is no longer available on ChristieforNJ.com, we did find it via Project Vote Smart:
I will eliminate special interest labor union giveaways that increase spending and taxes by ending the use of project labor agreements, which drive up the cost of public construction projects and fail to deliver a public benefit at a time when the economy is shedding jobs and taxpayers are struggling to make ends meet.
The governor clearly understands the negative impact PLA mandates have on the construction industry and the state’s economy. Under current law, firms would still be permitted to voluntarily enter into PLAs without government interference and favoritism towards special interests. Therefore, we strongly urge him to veto any legislation that expands the ability of government entities to mandate the use of PLAs on taxpayer-funded construction projects.
UPDATE 1/18/13: This afternoon, Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly interviewed ABC Northeast Region Chair Kirby Wu about the potential for PLA mandates on Hurricane Sandy cleanup projects due to this NJ Senate bill 2425. Learn more about the video and developing story here.
Write Gov. Christie on twitter (@GovChristie) and tell him to veto Sen. Sweeney’s bill, S2425.
It’s time for the entire construction industry and all politicians to create the conditions to rebuild New Jersey safely, ethically and at the best possible price and value for taxpayers.