The Patrick administration has decided to restrict work on a high-profile $285 million bridge project over the Merrimack River to contractors who agree to use only union labor, a rare move that has the state’s nonunion construction firms accusing Democrats of election-year pandering.
Advocates for the nonunion firms, some of which have poured thousands of dollars into preparing bids for the work, say the administration had given them a clear indication that the Whittier Bridge project would not have any such limitations.
Rebuilding the Whittier Memorial Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 across the Merrimack, is one of five major bridge projects that will be launched in the next few months. Contractors who attended a February dinner that featured Patrick’s transportation secretary said that he gave a clear signal that only the Longfellow Bridge project would require union labor.
Patrick administration aides and labor leaders dispute arguments that the union-only pact will increase costs and say the very complex work requires highly skilled laborers and the labor stability that unions provide.
Governor Deval Patrick’s director of communications, Brendan Ryan, scoffed at the notion that politics played a role in the declaration earlier this month that the winning bidder would have to enter into a union-workers-only pact with the building trade councils.
“I understand that people won’t agree with every decision we make, but to misrepresent what happened and resort to baseless accusations about the integrity of the decision-
making process is surprising and unfortunate,’’ Ryan said. He pointed out that the governor has upset the unions in another decision, when he rejected their request to require a union-only mandate for the Fore River Bridge, another one of the five major projects.
That has not placated the opponents of pacts that require union labor.
“It’s mind-boggling,’’ said Greg Beeman, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts, a trade group that advocates for open-shop commercial contractors.
Ronald N. Cogliano — president of Merit Construction Alliance, a nonunion advocacy group that aggressively monitors public works projects — called the governor’s decision’s “despicable.’’
“When does the political favoritism in the Commonwealth end,’’ said Cogliano, who supported Patrick’s Republican opponent, Charles D. Baker in 2010. “Taxpayers are already beleaguered. The governor is piling on more construction costs so he can curry more favor with organized labor.’’
Richard A. Davey, Patrick’s transportation secretary, sharply rejected the idea that he led nonunion businesses to believe that the administration would not require union labor for the Whittier project. He also insisted his decision was not based on political considerations or pressure from Democrat-friendly trade unions, but rather on his analysis that the work was complicated and needed to be insulated from labor strife.
“People may have heard what they wanted to hear,’’ he said. “I did not say this was a done deal. . . . We had not evaluated all the projects, including the Whittier.’’
The administration’s internal analysis justifying the governor’s mandate cited the “size and complexity’’ of the project, the availability of skilled labor, the importance of adhering to a timeline, and the risk of labor unrest.
But Davey acknowledged in an interview that nonunion contractors were capable of doing such a complicated project with nonunion workers. He also could not cite any labor strife on highway projects in recent decades but said it loomed as a potential problem.
The use of a project labor agreement has historically been uncommon for state construction projects, although they have become more common in recent years. Several state-
funded courthouses and several jobs performed for housing authorities were built under the agreements. In addition, the Big Dig was performed under a labor agreement.
The state had never imposed a union-only agreement on a highway project until Patrick mandated a labor agreement for the Longfellow project over the Charles River. The designation stipulates that workers on state projects must be union members and that union work rules must be followed.
Advocates of these agreements argue that they ensure high-quality work, due to the rigorous training required by the unions, and avoid the disruptions that can occur when unions protest at nonunion construction sites. Opponents argue that labor pacts increase costs, in this case by at least 10 percent.
Francis X. Callahan Jr., president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, strongly disputes the charge that his union pressured the administration. He said he and other labor leaders are constantly making the case to state officials to designate projects to be covered by project labor agreements.
“We’ve advocated for a PLA for a number of projects, but I wouldn’t presume to demand anything,’’ Callahan said. “We just argue that these major projects like the Whittier Bridge are sufficient in size, scope, and complexity to benefit from a PLA.’’
Callahan said the only political moves are coming from the nonunion firms and their Republican allies who refuse to recognize the value of labor agreements, which he said are used frequently in the private sector.
The move by the Patrick administration strikes at the heart of the debate within construction, labor, and political circles over the state’s decisions to increasingly impose a union-only policy on public construction projects outside the transportation agency.
Added to that battle is the politics that the open-shop construction advocates are now throwing into the mix, namely that the Democratic administrations in Boston and Washington are bending to the demands of organized labor, a key Democratic constituency.
Labor’s role in the November elections could be critical to Democratic candidates, from the presidential contest to the Massachusetts Senate race and the state’s congressional battles. The unions can provide foot soldiers and resources for a number of close races, including New Hampshire, a battleground state in President Obama’s race with presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Callahan joined political dignitaries and others to greet Obama as he stepped off the plane last month at Logan Airport.
Patrick won the critical support of trade unions when he ran for reelection in 2010 with promises that he would insist on labor agreements on projects “when necessary.’’ Baker, his Republican opponent, opposed any union-only public projects. The Massachusetts Trade Council is expected to rally behind Democrat Elizabeth Warren in her bid to unseat Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, in a race national Democrats see as critical to holding control of the Senate.
Disclosure that the winning bidders would have to enter into a project labor agreement came at a briefing by the Transportation Department June 15. According to those present, it was a jolt to those in the room.
Present were representatives of several firms that had spent tens of thousands of dollars and long hours pulling together joint ventures with subcontractors to create construction teams.
They had left a February construction industry dinner where Davey was the main speaker with the impression that, among the major five accelerated bridge projects, only the reconstruction of the Longfellow would be covered by a labor agreement.