ABC's Sham Study Debunked Before it is Released

August 2011 - It looks like the anti-worker extremists at ABC have gotten too devious and underhanded for their own good.

Recently, they paid one of those right-wing propaganda outfits with a deceptively neutral name to produce a study that would show the world that Project Labor Agreements increase the cost of school construction.

They first leaked it to some sympathetic conservative journalists, a few of whom obliged them with some effortless, non-analytical parroting of the bogus findings. Then they planned a press event to tout the so-called study to the rest of the news media.

One problem with that plan:  by that time, columnists, editors and reporters all around California knew the report was a bought-and-paid-for fake, and largely ignored it.

The study had purported to compare the costs of schools built with PLAs to those built without them, and of course, the authors did what they were paid to do: conclude that schools built with PLAs cost more.  Hoping to add some credibility to that finding, they cited the work of previous researchers, including Dr. Dale Belman, of Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations.  Seeing himself quoted about a topic on which he is one of the nation’s foremost experts, Dr. Belman, naturally, was eager to read the new study.

He recognized some of the research as similar to his own, but the conclusion was another matter entirely and completely unsupported by the actual research! Accordingly, he immediately responded with a detailed letter to the authors.

“I find that your study’s conclusion is not supported by your research; that you have overlooked important factors that affect costs, and that you have misinterpreted and drawn erroneous conclusions from my work; mistakes that I hope you will want to correct,” Dr. Belman wrote. 

In fact, he said, when correctly interpreted, the new research produced findings consistent with those from his own prior research: "When appropriate controls are included for differences in the characteristics of schools built including school type and location, building specifications, materials used, etc., there is no statistical evidence that PLA schools are more costly compared to non-PLA schools."

So how did the ABC-paid "researchers" justify a different conclusion? By omitting some vitally important factors, Belman explained. For example, prevailing wage varies widely by location around the state, and tends to be higher in regions that more frequently use PLAs; some areas are required to build to higher seismic standards than others; the Los Angeles Unified School District is profoundly different from any other in the state and can't be compared in a statistically meaningful way with others; and the study illogically bundles rehabilitation, remodeling and renovation together with new construction.

In general, Belman pointed out, there are statistically meaningful differences between PLA and non-PLA schools, with PLAs generally used on more challenging and complicated projects, rather than less expensive, so-called "plain vanilla" schools.

The ABC authors conveniently opted against controlling for those factors, Belman noted, adding, "The implications from this are clear, but downplayed in the report: when the model better controls for differences in characteristics between PLA and non-PLA schools, PLAs do not affect school construction costs."

After Building Trades Councils became aware of Dr. Belman's letter, we were able to get it to California journalists who have shown an interest in PLAs before they decided whether to devote time and effort to covering this self-serving stunt. It appears not many did, because no further press coverage materialized.

ABC's sham study was effectively debunked upon arrival, and its credibility with much of the news media compromised in the process. This time, it appears, they were too devious and underhanded for their own good.

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