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Editorial

Patrick shouldn’t bar non-union workers on Longfellow Bridge

THE PATRICK Administration is pushing ahead with a costly and unfair policy by imposing a project labor agreement on the $260 million reconstruction of the Longfellow Bridge. The administration’s rationale for the agreement, known as a PLA, falls far short of justifying a union-workers-only pact that would put upward pressure on the project price, while effectively excluding the state’s many non-union construction workers and firms from the project.

Last week, Cyndi Roy, director of communications at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, confirmed that the department will use a PLA on the project if the Federal Highway Administration says okay. The principal reason a PLA is necessary, contends Roy, is that the MBTA’s Red Line runs over the Longfellow Bridge “and there are concerns that contractor employees that are not subject to a PLA mandated no-strike, no-job-action clause could lead to service issues on the Red Line.’’

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But disruptive strikes and job actions are not something one commonly associates with non-union firms. Indeed, Greg Beeman, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts, an umbrella group for non-union construction firms, says he can’t recall a single incidence of a strike or job action by a non-union firm on a public job. Asked for examples, Roy failed to provide any, but said, via e-mail, that “there are many instances where union workers have set up picket lines and have disrupted work on non-union contracts.’’

The problem there, however, obviously lies with the union workers, not their non-union counterparts; if that’s really the administration’s big reason for a PLA, then it is letting the prospect of union misbehavior justify excluding non-union firms. That would be an egregiously wrong-headed response.

This is the second PLA that has been imposed under Patrick. The first was on the $750 million renovation and reconstruction of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, which the administration justified by citing the complexity of the project and the need to ensure against disruptive labor disputes.

A study of Massachusetts school construction projects estimated that PLAs added 12 percent to construction costs.

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If those rationales sound rather tinny, well, taxpayers should recall that Patrick pledged to support PLAs on an AFL-CIO endorsement questionnaire when he first ran for governor. And, further, that when he ran for reelection in 2010, he courted trade unions by noting that he had “directed that, going forward, project labor agreements be used when necessary.’’ They are never truly necessary, of course; though the state’s Supreme Judicial Court has said the exclusionary pacts are allowable on certain complex projects, it has also warned that they are anti-competitive.

PLAs are a top priority for unions for that very reason: They effectively keep union firms from having to compete with non-union companies. That’s so because PLAs stipulate that the workers on a job must be union members. That means non-union firms must either use union employees, and abide by union work rules, or have their own employees enroll in a union while they work on the project, and pay union dues and fees. Even then, says Beeman, firm managers can’t be certain they’ll be able to work with their own teams, which makes it difficult to develop an accurate bid for a PLA-governed project. Faced with uncertainty, most non-union firms choose not to compete for that work.

Restricting competition in that manner carries a cost. A study of Massachusetts school construction projects by the Beacon Hill Institute, Suffolk University’s market-oriented think tank, estimated that PLAs added 12 percent to construction costs. (Institute studies of school construction in Connecticut and New York found that PLAs led to even larger increases in bids or actual construction costs). Even if the effect were only half that, it would mean an extra $60 million for these two projects.

The state can’t afford to pay that kind of pointless premium. The Patrick administration should reverse this decision.

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