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Project labor agreements: Mass. taxpayers lose again

Although it lacks any compelling reasons for doing so, the Patrick administration is continuing to impose project labor agreements on some major state projects. Those agreements restrict work to contractors who agree to use union labor and abide by union work rules, effectively excluding the state’s nonunion firms and nonunion workers, and raising costs at a time when the state’s transportation coffers are already running dry.

In March, the administration put a PLA on the $260 million reconstruction of the Longfellow Bridge. In June, it slapped one on a $265 million project to rebuild the Whittier Memorial Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 traffic over the Merrimack River between Amesbury and Newburyport. The administration has also previously used a project labor agreement to restrict $750 million in renovation and reconstruction work at the University of Massachusetts at Boston to union labor.


Now, several studies have indicated that these agreements push the price of construction projects up significantly. When the Beacon Hill Institute, Suffolk University’s market-oriented think tank, looked at school-construction projects in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, it found that PLAs had added at least 12 percent to construction costs. Other studies have suggested that limiting bidders boosts prices even more. Unions dispute such conclusions, but the usual effect of restricting competition is to increase prices. The net result is that, because of the labor agreements, the state will end up spending tens of millions of dollars that could otherwise have been directed toward other road projects or toward long overdue transit repairs.

On the Whittier Bridge project, as with the Longfellow project, the administration’s rationale has been thin and unpersuasive. An internal analysis cited the “size and complexity” of the project, the risk of labor unrest, and importance of keeping to a schedule. But state Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey conceded to the Globe that nonunion contractors and workers were capable of doing the work. Nor could he cite any instances of labor problems delaying highway projects. Anyway, if union workers had created havoc on a project awarded to a nonunion firm, why reward such activity by granting union firms exclusive rights to future work?


The most plausible interpretation, however, is that Patrick is simply rewarding unions for past political support — and for the help Democrats want in this election year. But political considerations aren’t legitimate grounds for even an occasional PLA. And the longer-term political consequences are unpredictable: If the administration continues to foster the impression of profligacy, it could undermine the crucial effort to secure more highway and transit funding.

If project labor agreements are unfair to taxpayers, they are also unfair to the thousands of nonunion construction workers in the Commonwealth. Those workers and the firms that employ them aren’t asking that construction jobs be designated specifically for nonunion firms. Rather, they are simply seeking to compete on a level playing field for state work.