May 16, 2012

In My Opinion: Project labor agreements defended


---- — As president of the New York State Building & Construction Trades Council, representing more than 200,000 unionized construction workers, I must respond to Stephen Lefebvre's editorial about Crown Point Bridge project.

Mr. Lefebvre referred to Flatiron's decision to utilize a project labor agreement, which Mr. Lefebvre claims to have forced non-union "employees (to stay) home, unable to work because of exclusionary union membership requirements."

I would like to make a few clarifications.

First, project labor agreements can be negotiated before a project goes out to bid or after a contract has been awarded. A pre-bid agreement for a public works project is an agreement entered into by the government. Because the government is a party to the agreement, it must be consistent with the state's competitive bidding laws.

A feasibility study is required, and absent a projected cost savings, use of a project labor agreement is precluded. If the study identifies a cost-savings advantage, implementation of the project labor agreement saves taxpayers' money.

The Crown Point Bridge agreement was negotiated by the low bidder, Flatiron, after being awarded the contract, and the state was not a party to the agreement.

Flatiron's private business decision to implement a project labor agreement post-bid underscores that such agreements provide certain benefits not otherwise guaranteed. For example, under a project labor agreement, every trade agrees to standardized hours, rules and holidays, assuring continuity and stability on large, complex jobs.

Project labor agreements also can reduce workers compensation premiums through the use of alternate dispute resolution. Most importantly, a project labor agreement ensures a skilled workforce capable of producing an on-time quality project. Whether the workers are union or non-union, they all must meet minimum training and experience requirements before working on the project. Finally, a project labor agreement may promote the use of a local workforce, but it also provides unique opportunities for veterans, minorities and women eager to establish themselves in the construction trades.

Second, it is simply untrue that only unionized construction workers are utilized. Project labor agreements are well-recognized for their usefulness and have been found by the New York Court of Appeals to not violate the state's competitive bidding laws.

A project labor agreement simply sets forth the terms of conditions of employment so that surprises, cost-overruns and delays are avoided. Any contractor who agrees to the terms of the project labor agreement may bid on the project. That non-union contractors chose not to participate on the Crown Point Bridge project may be regarded as nothing more than a poor business decision.

If Mr. Lefebvre's statement is true, and most merit-shop contractors adhere to the prevailing-wage law and supply-benefit packages, then bidding work under a project labor agreement would cause them no hardship.

Third, it is not true that the "vast majority of those union workers" were from another state or out of the area." In fact, the majority of the Crown Point Bridge workforce was local. Furthermore, some of the out-of-state workers were there due to an exclusion in the project labor agreement that required a portion of the painting be completed by specialty contractors.

Mr. Lefebvre also mentions the tech-park in Malta. He is referring to the $4.3 billion chip fab plant owned by Global Foundries. This is another example of a private company choosing to enter into a project labor agreement to take advantage of the unique benefits offered by such an agreement on such a large, complex project. Similarly, much of the out-of-state workforce on that project is there as a result of exclusions in the project labor agreement.

Finally, I would like to respond to comments on the Wicks Law, which requires that separate electrical, plumbing and HVAC contracts be issued for public construction projects exceeding a threshold dollar amount. The purpose of the law is to create competition within the bid process, protecting the workforce and subcontractors who may suffer when large contractors choose to bid shop and sacrifice fair wages and safe working conditions to win the bid. Surely, Mr. Lefebvre cannot argue with the logic and policy behind the law.

Furthermore, public owners can avoid the Wicks Law by using a project labor agreement, which inherently precludes the concerns the Wicks Law protects against.

James Cahill is president of the New York State Building & Construction Trades Council.