Unions fight moves against construction labor agreements


fiscal watchdog groups have long railed against agreements guaranteeing union-only workers on major construction projects. But with public budgets under stress, even some usual labor allies are questioning whether the labor agreements are always the way to go.

Last year, Fall River Mayor Edward Lambert, a Democrat with long ties to organized labor, revoked the union-only Project Labor Agreement on three school construction jobs totaling about $100 million. And PLAs have been rejected or abandoned in recent years on municipal projects in Brockton, Lowell, and Worcester, as well as on a new science center at Smith College.

In Fall River, when the school construction projects were re-bid without the PLA, they came in about $6 million less —confirmation, say critics, that the agreements drive up construction costs by narrowing the pool of bidders and imposing costly union work rules. “We just saw a lack of what we felt were appropriate bids,” says Lambert, who adds that he still supports union-only agreements in some instances. “I always said to the labor unions that I thought PLAs would be beneficial, but that I wouldn’t allow a PLA to delay the projects or inflate the bids. I called the unions in and had a frank discussion and told them my first priority was to build the schools.”

A PLA essentially is a pre-construction collective bargaining contract governing a specific project that requires all laborers to be hired from union halls and that imposes union work rules on the construction site. Labor leaders and many supportive politicians maintain that PLAs are as useful as ever in ensuring high-quality and on-time construction, labor peace, and the coordination of intricate projects. And union leaders say they don’t see evidence of an anti-PLA trend.

They point to Bristol-Myers Squibb’s decision to use a PLA on a new $1 billion biologics plant in Devens, and to union-only agreements on major projects such as Gillette Stadium, a municipal parking garage in Worcester, a Milford co-generation plant, and Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton.

“The only attack on PLAs has been a public relations attack,” says Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council. “When you’re calling people from local union halls [to work on projects], it’s good for the local economy.”

Anti-PLA forces often point out that Massachusetts state law requires all public works projects to pay prevailing union wages regardless of whether they are union jobs.

But labor leaders say that their workers get significantly better benefit packages. “We also have outstanding pensions, annuities, and the most comprehensive health insurance for our workers and the best training in the business,” says Callahan.

Those benefits could also be one reason why PLAs appear to raise building costs on some projects.

In Worcester, former city manager Tom Hoover rejected a PLA for the $90 million Technical High School that opened last fall, but city officials kept a labor agreement in place on a new $21.5 million parking garage complex, which includes retail space, now under construction next to historic Union Station.

City officials decided that the PLA governing the long-delayed municipal garage, designed to be an architecturally impressive anchor for a neighborhood revitalization program, was still valid even though the agreement had been signed a decade ago. But the pre-cast concrete and brick structure, derided as the “Garage Mahal” by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette editorial board, has focused attention on the practice of restricting projects to union labor and contractors during tight fiscal times. A comparable municipal garage with retail space in Lowell was built recently without a PLA. It came in at the same price as the Worcester project, but with nearly twice the parking capacity and retail space.

“Project Labor Agreements do nothing but help unions recover lost market share,” says Ron Cogliano, executive director of the Merit Construction Alliance, which represents about 75 non-union contractors in Massachusetts and has led the charge in recent years against the union agreements.

Unions kept Worcester’s ‘Garage Mahal.’

Cogliano claims that construction unions have held back women and minorities and that the no-strike promise held out by PLAs is a barely concealed picket threat to those not agreeing to a pact with unions. He scoffs at union claims of quality and workforce training superiority, noting that all skilled tradesmen must be licensed by law anyway.

“The days are long gone when anyone with a pickup truck and a ladder can show up and go to work,” Cogliano says.

Cogliano’s group appealed to the federal government to block the Worcester garage PLA. Its contention is that the agreement violated a 2001 executive order issued by President Bush banning requirements to use only union labor on federally funded projects. The Worcester project is 40 percent federally funded.

Prodded by the anti-union group, federal transportation officials in late summer made the city submit a request for a waiver from the PLA rule. In September, the exemption was approved on the grounds that halting the project, which was already under construction, would cause too much harm and would disrupt labor agreements already in place. The project, complete with PLA, actually started in 1999, then was delayed nearly a decade.

In Fall River, the contractors’ group failed in its attempt to get a court injunction against the PLA on the city’s school construction projects, though in the end the mayor scuttled the agreements on his own. That case is still under appeal, because Merit is trying to set a precedent against PLAs in case law. The group won a more limited court injunction in Brockton in 2002, when a judge ruled that PLAs on two new schools and a renovation project did not meet established legal criteria that mandated labor agreements on only the biggest and most complex projects.

Meanwhile, Merit watched approvingly from the sidelines as Smith College officials battled student groups and organized labor in the Pioneer Valley over a PLA on a $70 million science and engineering center.

After months of negotiations, Ruth Constantine, the college’s vice president for finance and administration, told pro-union students that Smith would voluntarily agree to pay the prevailing wage, but there would be no PLA on the $70 million building. Smith’s construction manager had determined that a PLA would raise the building cost by at least $2 million.

Jon Weissman, secretary-treasurer of the Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council, doesn’t buy the school’s figures on the savings. “In general, they’ve exaggerated the cost difference,” says Weissman. “They’re probably sending a signal that they’re going to cut corners and build as cheaply as possible.”

The history of PLAs dates back to the big West Coast public works dam projects of the Great Depression. The agreements have continued to be used up to the present day, usually on public construction sites but also on private projects ranging from the Alaska Pipeline and Disney World to Boston’s Big Dig.

Starting in the 1980s, non-union construction groups such as Associated Builders and Contractors and the Merit Construction Alliance began challenging PLAs in court and lobbying against them in state legislatures. They have argued that they are not only expensive, but also discriminatory because most construction workers don’t belong to unions. (Only about 20 percent of construction workers in the Bay State are in unions, though that’s considerably higher than the national rate of about 13 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.)

The assault on PLAs here continued this decade, with the Beacon Hill Institute and Worcester Regional Research Bureau producing research papers claiming the agreements boost construction costs by about 15 percent.

By most indications, Massachusetts and other Democratic Party–dominated Northeast states will continue their pro-union policies. But if recent experience is a guide, the people paying the bills on big-ticket construction items may begin to think twice about always using PLAs.

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“The big advantage of a PLA to an employer is not having to worry about a picket line being put up next to a construction site,” says Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University. “When unions dominated the construction industry, PLAs made sense, but those days are largely over. PLAs make a lot of sense from unions’ perspective because the unions are interested in protecting their jobs and incomes. But the cities are starting to be opposed to them because they can’t afford them.”

Shaun Sutner is a reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.