When faced with a challenge, the first instinct of powerful political actors often isn’t to strive to compete. Instead, it’s to strive to limit the competition.
It should be no surprise, then, that with big public construction dollars being designated for important new projects, trade unions and their legislative allies are trying to limit who gets first bite at the apple. Actually, make that, who gets the only real bite at this or that juicy public-sector pomme.
How? Well, let me reintroduce our crafty old acquaintance . . . the Project Labor Agreement.
The Legislature has now slapped a PLA on $400 million in bonding authorization for a new long-term-care facility for veterans that will replace the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. On Tuesday, Governor Baker vetoed that PLA provision — and he was absolutely right to do so.
Time was, PLAs were more upfront about their aim: limiting this project or that to union workers and union firms. These days, like Herman Melville’s confidence man, who assumed diverting personas as he prowled the deck of a Mississippi River steamboat, the nonunion-labor-limiting agreements come in multiple guises.
This bond authorization, for example, professes to nonrestrictiveness, saying that “there shall be no precondition to the award of a contract that a bidder has previously entered into a collective bargaining agreement with a labor organization” — but then comes this caveat — “provided, however, that the bidder shall be willing to execute and comply with the project labor agreement for the project.”
A central PLA requirement is that rather than use its own workforce, a nonunion firm must hire its workers through the local union halls and abide by union pay scales and work arrangements. If a nonunion firm has developed an efficient, productive team with the skills needed for a company’s particular focus, that outfit isn’t going to have much interest in abandoning its model and taking on a new set of workers, particularly if those union employees are subject to jurisdictional turf rules, and so it is unlikely to bid on a PLA-constrained job.
Massachusetts has seen a lot of these procrustean pacts in the recent past. The $15 billion Big Pig — um, Dig — was subject to a PLA. A quarter-billion dollars of work on the Longfellow Bridge had a PLA attached, as did the $292 million I-95 bridge in Amesbury, in addition to $750 million of work at UMass Boston. The state’s 2011 gaming legislation basically extended the PLA concept to all casino construction.
By limiting competition, PLAs drive up costs substantially, as numerous studies have shown. Restricting nonunion labor is hardly fair to the thousands of Massachusetts construction workers who are employed by the hundreds of open-shop firms in the state. Further, PLAs make it harder to ensure that an appropriate share of public construction dollars goes to firms of color. Why? Because trade unions historically were not viewed as welcoming to members of color, and that has had a lingering effect.
“Most Black construction workers are not in a trade union, and most Black construction firms are not affiliated with a trade union, so PLAs significantly limit the participation of Black workers and firms,” said Samuel M. Gebru, director of policy and public affairs at the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts. For that reason, though the council supports strong worker protections, it does not back PLAs.
Unlike the House’s bill, the Senate hadn’t initially included a PLA — but then Senators Marc Pacheco, a staunch union ally, and Paul Feeney, the former legislative director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, succeeded in getting the PLA requirement added during floor debate.
To be sure, the bond-bill pays lip and process service to the need for inclusion, calling for an access, diversity, and inclusion committee and regular reports about efforts on that front.
Still, if past is prologue, Baker was right to warn in his veto message that the PLA requirement will hike the project’s cost significantly while “disproportionately reducing opportunities for minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses.”
Unions advocate for many good things — but PLAs aren’t among them. Even if the Legislature can’t develop a collective backbone on its own, the governor has now given lawmakers an excuse to abandon this counterproductive, competition-restricting scheme.
They should nod a quiet thank you in his direction and take it.