Project Labor Agreement Failure: Is Seattle’s Tunnel the West Coast’s Big Dig Boondoggle?

0 March 13, 2015  Featured, State & Local Construction, Transportation & Infrastructure

Bad news continues to plague Washington state’s Highway 99 tunnel mega-project underneath Seattle’s downtown waterfront, contradicting a number of key points lawmakers and construction union lobbyists use to sell government-mandated project labor agreements (PLAs) to owners, taxpayers and the media.

Broken Promises

It has not been a model government-mandated project labor agreement, as media reports indicate the job has been plagued by delays; increased costs; union strikes, featherbedding and labor disputes; a poor safety record; jobsite boozing; sexual harassment allegations; and violations of state and federal minority contracting rules.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported about an alarming number of construction injuries, despite claims by PLA advocates that PLAs lead to a safer jobsite (“Injuries on the rise for troubled Seattle tunnel project,” 3/12/15):

At least 117 workers injured at the project between 2012 and the end of 2014 resulted in an estimated $1 million worth of workers’ compensation claims, according to data collected by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health and released to the AP through a public records request. The agency did not have complete claim amounts for the end of 2014 so that total will increase. It also did not have data for 2015.

In February, King 5 reported that a whistleblower complained to state authorities that construction workers were showing up to work drunk and the jobsite had a pervasive quid pro quo system of needing to bring alcohol to the foreman in exchange for perks such as overtime, better shifts, and assistance with tasks at the job site (“Booze-for-perks scheme alleged at Seattle tunnel site,” 2/25/14):

“It’s an ‘I’ll take care of you, you take care of me’ atmosphere,” said the current worker who witnessed the exchange of alcohol. “In 30 years in the trade, I’ve never seen anything like this…They (field managers) are on a power trip and like to bully.”

“(My co-worker) got all the overtime and gravy work because he’d buy them gallons of alcohol,” said a former employee. “I’m dumbfounded at the entire thing. I can’t believe it….In 17 years in the business I’ve never seen such a hostile environment.”

The whistleblower also made sexual harassment accusations King 5 corroborated with other witnesses:

“Five employees interviewed by KING 5 said women were harassed in their work area. Two employees reported seeing pornography displayed in what is known as a “dry shack” where crew members take breaks and eat lunch.”

In Jan. 2014, noted the project suffered productivity delays due to needless union featherbedding, and the Washington State Department of Transportation announced prime contractors violated its contract by creating barriers preventing minority- and women-owned small businesses from winning project subcontracts, therefore breaking federal rules governing the project.

In September 2013, reported a strike shut down the project for four weeks, despite the PLA’s no-strike promise.

The Seattle tunnel PLA’s public record of poor performance is already drawing unfortunate comparisons to Boston’s Big Dig, the most infamous PLA boondoggle of all time, which was plagued by delays, accidents, jobsite drinking and cost overruns wasting billions of dollars paid for by local, state and federal taxpayers.

Perhaps Seattle’s tunnel project, and other problematic PLA projects in Washington state, will lead to repeal of Executive Order 96-08. Signed by Gov. Lowry December 6, 1996, it directs “State Offices” and other “State Agencies” to consider PLAs  for appropriate public works projects on a project-by-project basis which meet the criteria established in Executive Order 96-08. Washington is one of several states with a pro-PLA policy while 21 states have laws or executive orders restricting government-mandated PLAs. Seattle also has a discriminatory and costly pro-PLA policy impacting city projects that is ripe for repeal.

The PLA Hustle

In order to create more jobs for union members and increase the unionized sector’s dwindling market share, union bosses market PLAs to public and private construction owners as a tool to guarantee quality construction, safety and labor peace on jobsites in exchange for a requirement by owners to exclusively use contractors that agree to be bound by the union-friendly terms and conditions of a PLA.

Big Labor bosses load PLAs with language favorable to union leaders, union members and unionized contractors hand-picked to receive preferential treatment by a PLA.

These agreements typically force contractors to hire all or most of their tradespeople from union hiring halls, pay into union pension and benefit plans, follow inefficient union work rules, and hire apprentices exclusively from union apprenticeship programs. As a condition of working on a PLA project, provisions in typical PLAs also can force nonunion employees to:

  • join a union or receive unwanted union representation;
  • follow archaic work rules;
  • pay union dues and initiation fees; and
  • forfeit any employer and employee contributions to union benefit plans unless they join a union and become vested in these plans.

Of course, these provisions discourage competition from qualified nonunion contractors and their skilled employees. Costly union rules and less competition results in increased costs. Research across the country has found PLAs increase the cost of construction between 12 percent and 18 percent compared to similar non-PLA projects. Studies have also found numerous PLA projects with delays, safety problems, construction defects, discrimination against minorities and women, decreased competition and increased costs.

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