Ballot Intiative Points to Next Possible Casualty for Unions: Project Labor Agreements

Mike Elk Nov 2, 2010


Perhaps the most important issue for organized labor on the ballot today is an initiative in San Diego County, Calif., which forbids unions from negotiating Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) on construction projects financed by the county government. Union-busting construction groups like Association of Builders & Contractors (ABC), have been blasting San Diego voters with ads against project labor agreements saying ““It’s not fair to force someone to join a union just to work on a taxpayer-funded project.”

Under these project labor agreements, the group running a construction project  — whether it be a private corporation or sometimes a government body — negotiates, before construction even begins or bid are placed, an agreement with construction unions an agreement on pay, benefits, and work and safety conditions. As a result, union contractors who typically pay their workers better and demand better working conditions are more completive to get the bid.

PLAs are typically used on government-financed projects. Union contractors are used less and less in the private sector. Union contractors can typically only place competitive bids on government contracts where Davis Bacon laws and Project Labor Agreements apply. As a result, PLAs are the lifeblood of building trade unions as their membership shrinks. In California for instance, only 24 percent of construction workers are union members, but on construction sites using PLAs, 75 percent of the construction workers are unionized.

PLAs have always been controversial. The Bush Administration forbid their on federal financed projects because they favored unions, thus greatly reducing their use nationwide. One of the first actions of the Obama Administration was to sign an executive order allowing the use of PLAs on federally funded projects – leading to a flourishing of project labor agreements. According to the New York Times, AFL-CIO officials estimate that those constructions projects are worth $100 billion nationwide.

In response, a movement against PLAs seems afloat.  This last June, in Oceanside and Chula Vista, Calif., ballot measures passed that prohibited local city governments from using PLAs. Now anti-union contractors are hoping to go nationwide in their attacks against them. “If the [San Diego] county ballot initiative passes, nonunion contractors plan to push for similar bans across the state, and eventually the nation,” Scott Crosby, president of the San Diego chapter of the union busting Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) told the New York Times in October.

It also looks like union busters and their Republican allies are in the early stages of an attack on Davis Bacon Laws. Davis Bacon ensures that all construction workers on government-financed projects are paid a “prevailing wage” for an area (typically the union wage). The Davis Bacon Law means construction contractors bids are focused on quality as opposed to wages since the wage scale is already set. It prevents a non-union contractor from severely underbidding a union contractor by offering poverty wages.

Just last week, Noam Schieber of the New Republic floated suspending Davis Bacon Laws as part of deal with a Republican-controlled Congress to pass additional stimulus spending. Schieber wrote in the New Republic, “Unions and environmentalists would howl, of course—in many cases for good reason. But that’s partly the point. (In fact, the louder the better.) If a spending package has the right opponents, then the conservative media-industrial complex may come around, bringing the GOP leadership along with it.”

Noam Schieber is the type of insider journalist that The White House calls up and asks favors to test out ideas with the inside-the-Beltway crowd. So Schieber’s suggestion to suspend Davis Bacon laws may be a preview of options the administration is considering employing in dealing with a Republican Congress.

In the wake of the tens of millions of dollars spent blasting unions in ads during the fight over the Employee Free Choice Act, the public’s view of organized labor is at an all-time low, according to Gallup poll data. Big corporations are using labor’s defeat and inability to frame the narrative on the Employee Free Choice Act to hammer away at already existing labor laws (as I argued in “EFCA’s Dead, but Fear of It Still Driving Anti-Worker Measures” for Working In These Times before).

The challenge to PLAs in California is only one example of the increasingly defensive political actions organized labor will be involved in during the next few years.

This article was originally published on Working In These Times.

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