Olympics jobs shouldn’t be union only

Bid 2.0 excludes four-fifths of workers

BOSTON 2024’s second plan to host the Summer Olympics in Massachusetts attempts to convince taxpayers it’s financially feasible and responsible. However, the inclusion of a discriminatory and costly hiring policy contradicts that point.

In unveiling Bid 2.0 last week, Steve Pagliuca, chairman of Boston 2024, promised the Olympics would generate “billions of dollars of spending in the region and create tens of thousands of jobs in a range of industries — including construction.”

It sounds wonderful, unless you’re a merit shop construction worker.  The new bid uses Project Labor Agreements to hand all the construction jobs related to the Olympic Games to unions, who represent only 20 percent of the construction workforce in Massachusetts, according to federal labor statistics.  In exchange for the union-only restriction, organized labor agrees not to cause disruptions to the project.

Many taxpayers are already familiar with the downside of PLAs.  They governed the Big Dig, which suffered from runaway construction costs, and they were used extensively during the Patrick Administration’s last four years in office.  (Perhaps, not coincidentally, Boston 2024 is staffed almost entirely by former Patrick Administration officials.)

Critiquing PLAs is not union bashing.  A fair evaluation of the policy suggests PLAs discriminate against a majority of Massachusetts construction workers; unfairly limit competition among qualified, responsible contractors; and cause construction costs to skyrocket. The Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University reported that PLAs increase construction costs by at least 14 percent. An analysis of PLAs by the state of New Jersey showed public schools built under PLAs were 30.5 percent more expensive and took longer to complete than those built without.

The New York Regional Planning Association found that during the recent Great Recession, when downward economic pressure led to double-digit reductions in construction costs, project owners who entered into a PLA were, “almost universally disappointed with the actual savings achieved – 2 to 4 percent rather than the promised 20 percent.”

When a PLA on a school building program in Fall River resulted in bids wildly over budget, then-Mayor Edward Lambert rescinded the union-only measure and opened the bidding to all qualified contractors, union and nonunion alike. Prices came in under budget, saving Fall River residents millions in construction costs and leading Lambert to say, “With more bidders you tend to get a better price.”

Bids under a PLA are always higher because of the limited competition, even on public works projects subject to the state’s Prevailing Wage Law, which mandates that pay and benefits be pegged to the union rate.

But, according to the New York study, within construction trade unions there also exists a “universe of unproductive work rules and longstanding practices – whether mandated by contract or simply by custom – which reduce efficiency, introduce redundancy, or otherwise cause costs to soar through delays and overstaffing.”

PLA proponents offer a long list of discredited claims to justify this employment discrimination.  Their talking points regarding compensation, training, performance, and quality collapse under scrutiny.  Consider these facts:

  • All workers must belong to a union when working on a PLA project.  According to union rules, a nonunion worker allowed on the job must join the union within seven days.
  • Merit shop employees enjoy pay and benefits equal to, if not better than, their union counterparts. They have excellent health insurance plans; receive paid holidays, sick days and vacation time; and have fully-funded 401(k) pension plans. (This helps explain why union membership is stuck at about 20 percent.)
  • Merit shop employees have the same training and take the same tests as union members to become licensed in their trade.
  • Merit shop employees approach their craft with professionalism and pride. They do not cause job delays and project disruptions. Only unions strike and picket.
  • PLAs fail to guarantee the hiring of minorities, women, and local residents.  By locking out four out of five construction workers, projects do not have access to the available workers necessary to meet those hiring goals. Most recently, the city of New Bedford joined San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York, and Baltimore in failing to meet goals for hiring local residents, women, and minorities on construction projects as promised by PLA supporters.

The Merit Construction Alliance believes that unionization among workers is a choice that should be recognized and respected.  Equally as important, employees who prefer to work for merit shops should not be subject to employment discrimination simply because they choose not to join a union.

Meet the Author

Ron Cogliano

President, Merit Construction Alliance
The principal of fair competition is the cornerstone of the Olympic Games.  Imagine an Olympics where four out of five qualified athletes were arbitrarily denied access to compete and where political connections, not athletic performance, determined the winners and losers.  Such games would be rejected outright by the public.

Massachusetts should send a strong message that discriminatory hiring policies will not be tolerated and reject Boston 2024’s bid.

Ronald Cogliano is the president of the  Merit Construction Alliance, a nonprofit association of merit shop contractors and employees that advocates for fair competition and equal opportunity.