Bob Balgenorth: Project Labor Agreements are good for public projects
By Bob Balgenorth
Special to the Mercury News
Project Labor Agreements, or PLAs, are popular with many construction businesses and public agencies in the Bay Area; for example, the Valley Transportation Authority voted 11-1 in favor of a PLA for construction of the BART-to-San Jose project.
A PLA is a risk-management tool. Negotiated before work on a project begins, it generally includes a no-strike clause as well as a process to resolve disputes. It establishes the hours of work, wages, benefits and working conditions. Many municipal PLAs also have local-hire provisions and other benefits desired by the community.
Still, a few anti-union contractors malign these agreements out of self-interest. This was the case with Nicole Goehring's column on this page last week on behalf of the Associated Builders and Contractors' Golden Gate chapter. As U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynahan once said: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts."
Federal law and the California Public Contract Code authorize local governments to enter into PLAs. The code requires all PLAs to include provisions that "prohibit discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, political affiliation or membership in a labor organization in hiring and dispatching workers for the project." This is consistent with the competitive bidding requirements under state and federal law, so nonunion and union contractors can compete in a fair and open manner. governments, school districts and special districts throughout California are increasingly using these agreements to deliver high-quality construction projects. Sophisticated, profit-driven companies that seek cost effective results without compromising quality also are increasingly utilizing PLAs. In Santa Clara County, there are more than 100 construction projects, both public and private, totaling more than $8 billion, that were completed or are under way with PLAs.
Project Labor Agreements prevent contractors from misclassifying workers or committing other violations that may gain them an unfair competitive advantage, including importing unskilled workers from other states. This is precisely why the Associated Builders and Contractors opposes PLAs. This group represents an insignificant 0.4 percent of all licensed contractors in California. However, those few contractors account for a staggering 24 percent of all construction-related wage and hour violations in California.
Furthermore, its assertion that unions represent only 15 percent of the construction workforce may be true in Mississippi, but not in California -- and definitely not in the Bay Area, where the majority of contractors performing public works have strong partnerships with their employees and local communities. Unlike Mississippi, California's construction workers, union and nonunion, earn a decent wage on public works projects to provide for themselves and their families.
Another argument is that PLAs increase costs. That shaky argument comes from a recent study paid for by Associated Builders that was dismissed by academics as flawed. All public works projects, regardless of a PLA, are covered by prevailing wage requirements determined by the California Department of Industrial Relations, which sets the wages for workers.
The VTA bid came in 10 percent under the transit agency's estimate, and it promised to complete the project a full year ahead of its original schedule because of the PLA. None of the Associated Builders and Contractors companies was found to be qualified for this complex and important project.
The VTA board should be congratulated on taking the extra step to protect taxpayer funds by ensuring contractors and workers compete based on quality and conformance with our laws, rather than economies that come with avoidance and deception.
Bob Balgenorth is president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of California. He wrote this for this newspaper.