County bans renew debate over union-labor deals

Jason Scott, BridgeTower Media//May 30, 2019

County bans renew debate over union-labor deals

Jason Scott, BridgeTower Media//May 30, 2019

While prospects for a state ban on project labor agreements remain slim, a handful of counties are enacting their own limits, encouraging opponents of the agreements.

A project labor agreement, or PLA, requires the use of union workers on a project. While they are often linked to large public-sector projects, they also are used in some private-sector construction.

Bills prohibiting PLAs for taxpayer-funded projects in Pennsylvania usually die in legislative committees in the state capital.

But over the last decade, three counties in Pennsylvania have banned PLAs, with Lebanon County being the latest.

Its commissioners passed an ordinance in May to bar PLAs on county-funded public works projects. Lancaster County was the first, passing a ban in 2011 with help from then-County Commissioner Scott Martin. Berks County was the second, in 2014.

Now a state senator, Martin is still fighting for a statewide ban.

“The dam will break at some point,” said Martin, a Republican. “Little by little people are realizing how unacceptable it is to discriminate against a huge section of the workforce.”

A history of contention

PLAs have a long history in the U.S. In the 1930s, they were tied to long-term government projects, like dams, to ensure they were completed on time and on budget.

The Obama administration passed an executive order in 2009 encouraging federal agencies to mandate PLAs for contracts over $25 million.

Unions and other supporters of PLAs argue that the agreements guarantee companies will have access to well-trained and experienced workers, which helps boost wages and benefits for union and non-union workers.

Non-union, or merit shop, contractors, however, say PLAs effectively shut them out of public-sector work, even though 80 percent to 90 percent of construction workers in Pennsylvania are not unionized.

Union wages also can make projects more expensive, said the Keystone Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, or ABC, which represents non-union contractors.

Unions have typically won the debate at the legislative level, but merit shops have slowly been picking up victories.
Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court recently sided with ABC and merit shops by ruling that a PennDOT PLA for road work in Norristown was unfair to two companies that don’t use union labor.

Kentucky recently passed a PLA prohibition, becoming the 25th state to ban state and local government agencies from forcing bidders to sign the agreements.

“For the most part, you can control the project criteria without a PLA,” said Brent Sailhamer, director of government affairs for ABC. “You can structure contracts that say you can’t walk off the job and you set the schedule and budget. You can do all that in a contract without having to mandate hiring from a certain labor hall.”

But Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, argues that PLAs are merely a tool that can be used by local governments and they are not required by law.

He also noted that many private companies rely on PLAs in Pennsylvania. Large utility companies, for example, tend to use these agreements to ensure projects get done on time and on budget.

Martin’s legislation would make it illegal for a public body to consider the union status of an employer’s workforce in its selection process for awarding a construction contract.

“We should have open competition for projects funded by taxpayer dollars,” Martin said.

But union advocates, including the liberal-leaning Keystone Research Center, argue that quality would suffer if PLAs are banned in Pennsylvania.

Stephen Herzenberg, the center’s executive director, said the primary focus would be on the lowest price and less on higher-paid skilled workers.

Lower-wage jobs are often tied to less-skilled workers, which he said can lead to more accidents on job sites.
“ABC keeps pushing for state and local legislation that reinforces low-wage, low-skill and high-injury competition,” he said.

In a tight labor market, where many construction companies are struggling to find skilled workers, Herzenberg said, PLAs could become more common, rather than less, to ensure job sites are adequately staffed.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go the other way,” he said.