March 5, 2018

PLAs good for construction industry

Kimberly Glassman

On Feb. 12, an op-ed in the HBJ ("State must end project labor agreements") by the Connecticut chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors presented an over-simplified and inaccurate description of project labor agreements.

A project labor agreement, or PLA, is a pre-hire agreement that sets construction project employment terms. They're often used on complex projects that require the services of multiple contractors and subcontractors over a sustained period of time. PLAs are a common procurement method for the state of Connecticut, municipalities and private developers.

The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) likes to tout their membership numbers. However, they represent only 1 percent of construction companies in the United States. According to the National Labor College, a meager 22,260 apprentices were enrolled in ABC programs, compared to over 420,000 apprentices enrolled in union-funded programs.

Though we appreciate ABC's attempt to paint the use of PLAs as a partisan issue by invoking Gov. Malloy's decision to utilize the agreements, they fail to disclose other elected leaders' use of them. Republican Mayor Mark Boughton recently signed a PLA for Danbury High School. Former Republican Mayor John Harkins signed PLAs for both the Victoria Soto Elementary School and Stratford High School. And former Gov. John Rowland signed a historic PLA on Adriaen's Landing in Hartford.

There is nothing that precludes non-union contractors from bidding on a PLA project. Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on union membership. Rather than offer a weak argument for outlawing PLAs as a procurement method, we should ask why ABC and non-union contractors don't compete for those projects.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2006 Survey, only 21 percent of workers in the non-union sector of the U.S. construction market were receiving retirement benefits. That's abysmal.

Under a PLA, all contractors are required to abide by collective bargaining agreements to meet the needs of a specific project. Those agreements dictate wages and benefits, like health insurance and retirement plans. Other important aspects might include provisions for utilizing apprentices, local hiring goals, set-aside goals for minority and women-owned businesses, and a commitment to utilize returning veterans through programs like "Helmets to Hardhats."

PLAs in Hartford and New Haven have provided secure job opportunities for local residents. Absent these agreements, residents are often overlooked for employment on projects being built in their own community. The local hiring goals specified in PLAs have contributed to millions of dollars being recycled into Connecticut's economy.

ABC argues that PLAs raise the cost of construction. Yet studies by UCLA, Cornell and other leading institutions have concluded that there is simply no evidence to back up this claim. UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education published a study in 2017 that found that PLA projects have more bidders and lower bids than non-PLA projects.

If PLAs raised the cost of construction, then profit-oriented corporations wouldn't consistently use them. Corvus Capital Partners LLC just signed a PLA on the Bridgeport Cherry Street Lofts and the Bridgeport Landing Development LLC signed a PLA for the Steel Pointe Harbor project.

ABC referenced an erroneous 2009 study published by right-wing think tank Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) at Suffolk University. It's worth noting that BHI and Suffolk University severed ties in 2016. In 2015, The Guardian reported that BHI is associated with ultra-conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch Brothers.

To call for the repeal of an entire procurement method simply on the grounds that an infinitesimal segment of non-union contractors don't like having to pay area standard wages and into benefit funds is disingenuousness.

Kimberly Glassman is the director of the Foundation for Fair Contracting of Connecticut.

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