Infrastructure talks call into question controversial project labor agreements

FILE — President Joe Biden, right, speaks with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) after meeting with Biden and a bipartisan group of Senators to discuss infrastructure at the White House on June 24, 2021. Portman, who is leading negotiations for his party on a bipartisan infrastructure plan, says Republicans have nothing to lose and much to gain in cutting a deal with the president. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)
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FILE — President Joe Biden, right, speaks with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) after meeting with Biden and a bipartisan group of Senators to discuss infrastructure at the White House on June 24, 2021. Portman, who is leading negotiations for his party on a bipartisan infrastructure plan, says Republicans have nothing to lose and much to gain in cutting a deal with the president. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

National spending debate falls on the heels of first PLA signed by Montgomery County.

A national trade group with conservative ties and an area chapter has started a campaign to dissuade legislators from mandating controversial project labor agreements in a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure bill under debate this week, a push that comes after Montgomery County commissioners recently approved a similar agreement with local trade unions.

“Most people in high numbers would agree that investing in the nation’s infrastructure is a great idea. Our roads and bridges are crumbling and need repair. But unfortunately, at times, people play partisan politics in those discussions,” said John Morris, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Ohio Valley.

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But unions say the agreements that include a preference for union laborers should be required for certain projects to ensure quality work and that spending on neglected infrastructure also benefits the nation’s workforce, said Rob Dorans, general counsel for the Affiliated Construction Trades Ohio, a union advocacy group.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure with the legislation currently being considered by Congress and supported by President Biden,” Dorans said. “Building trades unions believe that these projects both have the opportunity to transform the physical infrastructure of our communities, but also support living-wage careers in construction trades that come with good health care and retirement benefits.”

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Morris, who is also a Miami Twp. trustee, said the Associated Builders and Contractors has urged Washington officials to reject any effort to include a preference for pre-hire collective bargaining agreements in new infrastructure legislation or within final American Rescue Plan funding rules.

Treasury Department interim final rules for American Rescue Plan infrastructure projects “encourages recipients to ensure that water, sewer and broadband projects use strong labor standards, including project labor agreements and community benefits agreements that offer wages at or above the prevailing rate and include local hire provisions.”

The industry group claims that project labor agreements disadvantage roughly 87% of the nation’s construction workforce that’s not unionized. Roughly 19% of Ohio’s construction workers are unionized, slightly more than the 13% nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Grady Mullins, executive secretary of the Dayton Building and Construction Trades Council, said PLAs ensure good work and return local taxes to a region’s economy.

“We want money to say in the community,” he said. “That way everybody benefits, including the businesses around us.”

Montgomery County project

The timing of the national infrastructure debate falls on the heels of the first project labor agreement signed by Montgomery County in May.

The Ohio Valley chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors didn’t see eye-to-eye with county commissioners and asked them to reconsider the agreement with the area’s trade unions to renovate the county engineer’s office and restrooms on the 8th floor of the Montgomery County Administration Building.

“No one has contacted me and said they’re going to step back,” Morris said.

The county plans to move forward with the agreement that Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert described as a pilot program that gives the trade unions the ability track the makeup of the workforce — but not dictate it.

“What it does for the union is it allows them from a reporting vehicle to see how many individuals are in the union, that are in these trades, and how many aren’t. That’s important data to them,” Colbert said.

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While the contractor for the project hasn’t been selected, the agreement gives the unions the right to know where the employees are coming from, their qualifications and how they are being compensated, Mullins said.

“This way, if we see people coming from North Carolina, Tennessee and elsewhere, we can bring that to attention to the people like the commissioners and say this contractor is hiring people who don’t live in the community. They’re not having any input into the community, they going to do this job and leave,” Mullins said.

Colbert said the agreement is non-exclusionary, unlike some agreements that require union-only workers.

“The goal is to get union shops, non-union shops, the trades, minority bidders — we want to make sure that everybody can come on and be a part of this process. So we did not add the normal PLA language,” he said. “This is less of a lightning rod than some are making it out to be.”

But some potential bidders on Montgomery County’s pilot project — which planners estimate will cost about $1.4 million — said they were caught off guard, including one local contractor that said the company would not bid on the project due to the PLA.

Mullins said some employers don’t like project labor agreements because it exposes non-union workers to protections they don’t ordinarily have.

“We’re there checking wages, we’re checking their benefits, making sure everybody’s paid correctly, classifications are what they are and the job is safe,” he said.

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Between 1997 and 2020, at least 243 project labor agreements had been signed in Ohio representing $15 billion in work, according to North America’s Building Trades Unions. Such projects have been as large as a $325 million corrections facility in Franklin County and a $300 million stadium for the Cleveland Browns. Numerous school districts have used them for building projects.

President Biden’s larger American Jobs Plan calls for transforming infrastructure and tackling climate change with clean energy projects with prevailing wage requirements and labor protections and training standards.

On Friday, a PLA was announced to build the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm, a $2.8 billion, 800-megawatt project off the Massachusetts coast. The agreement between Vineyard Wind and Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council ensures 500 construction jobs go to union workers.

“The challenge in Washington is always to make sure politics does not get in front of policy,” Morris said. “Trades groups representing all trades are united in their belief that project labor agreements are bad public policies.”

Morris said the labor agreements cost taxpayers more than necessary for construction costs, particularly as employers struggle to find workers.

“When you throw a PLA on top of it, you’re going to get very few bidders, and you’re basically giving them an open invitation to bid very high,” he said.

Dorans said projects with attached PLAs often finish below architects’ estimates and there’s more interest in bidding on the projects.

“The conditions on the project are spelled out for everyone on the front end. So there’s no surprises for anybody,” he said.

Work in Washington

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said last week he was scheduling a procedural vote for Wednesday to begin debate on the still-evolving bipartisan infrastructure bill.

With the IRS provision out, Lawmakers indicated that substantial hurdles remain, including how to pay for the nearly $579 billion in new spending over five years that they agreed to with the White House. The rest of the money in the infrastructure proposal is a renewal of existing programs.

At the same time, Democrats are working out the particulars of a separate bill that would invest $3.5 trillion in social services, education and support for families, that they aim to ultimately pass with solely Democratic support. Democrats hope to show progress on that bill before lawmakers leave Washington for their recess in August.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, predicted lawmakers will be able to craft a final infrastructure bill, although he was unsure they will meet “anybody’s arbitrary deadline.”

“I appreciate the fact that the majority leader wants to have a vote as soon as possible. I don’t disagree with that, but soon as possible means when it’s ready,” Portman said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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