Trade group blasts Montgomery County for union labor requirement on renovation project

Montgomery County commissioners approved a project labor agreement requiring that union-approved construction workers complete a renovation of the 8th-floor engineer's office in the Montgomery County Administration Building. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

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Montgomery County commissioners approved a project labor agreement requiring that union-approved construction workers complete a renovation of the 8th-floor engineer's office in the Montgomery County Administration Building. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Unions say agreements ensure quality work and living wages.

A Montgomery County measure that requires the use of union-approved workers on an engineer’s office renovation is under fire by a trade group claiming the project labor agreement — the first ever approved by county commissioners — is unfair to companies that employ the more than 80% of Ohio’s nonunionized construction workers.

“The county commissioners could not have possibly passed a more discriminatory motion,” said John Morris, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Ohio Valley. “The overwhelming majority of small, woman- and minority-owned construction firms are merit shop, their employees choose not to join unions. They are now excluded from working on this project.”

Tyler Small, assistant Montgomery County administrator, said the county’s first project labor agreement, approved May 25 as a pilot project, is neither exclusionary nor discriminatory.

“In short, the claim by Mr. Morris is not accurate,” Small said. “Any contractor can bid on this project. They are authorized — but not required — to utilize their own staff.”

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According to the PLA, the selected contractor would have to use current union workers or have their own employees approved by the signatory trade unions.

Grady Mullins, who signed onto the agreement as executive secretary of the Dayton Building and Construction Trades Council, said the county’s construction project to refurbish the County Administration Building’s eighth floor office and restrooms will be better constructed using skilled union laborers, many trained in years-long apprenticeship programs.

“The reason the agreement is put in place is to provide a more stable workforce, for the county to get better-quality workers and better-quality work,” he said.

Roughly 19% of Ohio’s construction workers are unionized, slightly more than the 13% nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Though public authorities in other counties have completed PLA projects, Montgomery County commissioners have never approved one for a taxpayer-funded construction project, according to Small.

“For this particular project, PLA was incorporated as a pilot program so we can review the concept, determine overall cost, maintain work quality and ensure diversity,” he said. “We hope we can identify efficiencies as a result of this project delivery method.”

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 in the state have implemented PLAs for building projects.

But some potential bidders on Montgomery County’s pilot project — which planners estimate should cost roughly $1.4 million — were caught off guard by the pre-hire collective bargaining agreement.

Debra Flatter, an estimator for AKA Construction, a female-owned, small contractor in Brookville, said it became clear a few minutes into the pre-bid meeting for the engineer’s office renovation that her company wouldn’t be submitting a proposal.

“When they mentioned the PLA, I thought, ‘Oh boy, AKA can’t touch this,’” she said.

AKA Construction has previously been hired by commissioners, including for a $695,000 renovation of the Montgomery County Board of Elections office approved in 2015 and in 2017 the company was awarded a contract to renovate the sheriff’s training center interior that ran about $89,000. Neither included a requirement to hire union labor, Flatter said.

“It takes a lot of control of the project out of the individual contractor’s hands and puts it in the hands of the unions,” she said. “AKA and their employees have chosen not to be a union company, not to join the unions, not to become a signatory of those contracts.”

But with a project labor agreement in place on the engineer’s office update, AKA, with just about a dozen employees, is at a competitive disadvantage with larger companies that can afford to pay union wages, Flatter said.

“We just can’t bid it. We will not bid on a job with a PLA agreement,” she said. “You are excluding most of the smaller, minority, female-owned businesses from bidding on the job.”

Montgomery County Commission President Judy Dodge did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

PLAs have been used locally on private building projects. One was in place for construction of the Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway, completed in 2014. A PLA also governed the workforce that built the recently opened Gem City Market, a community co-op grocery store.

Morris, who is also a Miami Twp. trustee, does not dispute a private owner’s right to determine the makeup of their workforce, but takes issue when officials do for the construction of government facilities.

“The owners can do whatever they like and and they did that,” Morris said. “Public projects should be openly bid and free for everyone to compete and win. With a project labor agreement, they’re not.”

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Despite legal challenges, Ohio courts have consistently upheld the rights of local officials to use the agreements to set terms on the labor pool working on a public project, said Rob Dorans, general counsel for the Affiliated Construction Trades Ohio, a union advocacy group that assists area locals with implementing PLAs for both public and private construction projects.

“That’s a smart way for local elected officials to make sure ... they are not only getting the highest skilled labor force on those projects, but also they’re supporting the community by making sure that folks have a living wage, have health care and retirement benefits,” he said. “That goes back to making sure it’s a more stable community. These are good jobs that folks want to go do.”

But Morris said the labor agreements cost taxpayers more than necessary for construction costs, particularly in a sector struggling to find labor.

“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. “It’s monopoly power … They know they don’t have to sharpen their pencil to win this job.”

Dorans said projects with PLAs often finish below architects’ estimates and there’s more interest in bidding 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. “They’re going to be bidding against other other folks that understand the type of workforce that they’re going to need to utilize on the project.”

Morris said he hopes Montgomery County’s three commissioners, who voted unanimously for the PLA, will revisit their decision.

“We’re very hopeful that this is an anomaly and that the commissioners will look at this and take an opportunity to see that they’ve reduced competition unfairly and that this is perhaps taken off this project,” Morris said. “Or it’s the last one we see for the next 20 years.”

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