Obama puts union strings on construction project

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY S.A. MILLER

De­liv­er­ing on Pres­i­dent Obama’s prom­ise to boost the la­bor move­ment, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has an­nounced a $35 mil­lion fed­eral construction project in New Hamp­shire that re­quires union rep­re­sen­ta­tion for the work­ers and forces nonunion em­ploy­ees to pay dues and con­trib­ute to a union pen­sion fund.

Mr. Obama is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der in the first weeks of his pres­i­dency that would make the re­quire­ment, known as a “project la­bor agree­ment” or PLA, the norm for all gov­ern­ment con­tracts on large-scale construction jobs. The or­der is un­der re­view and a fi­nal rule is not ex­pected for months, but that did not stop the La­bor Depart­ment from rush­ing to use a PLA to build its new Job Corps Cen­ter in Manch­ester, N.H.

The PLA ex­ec­u­tive or­der re­placed a Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion or­der that dis­cour­aged the use of such agree­ments.

It was one in a se­ries of early pol­icy moves by Mr. Obama that has dra­mat­i­cally im­proved the unions’ for­tunes, though the pres­i­dent has not de­liv­ered on la­bor’s top leg­isla­tive pri­or­ity, the so-called “card-check” bill that would make it eas­ier to or­ga­nize work­places.

Crit­ics say im­pos­ing the union-friendly rules on the New Hamp­shire job — the first fed­eral construction con­tract with such stip­u­la­tions since Pres­i­dent Clin­ton was in of­fice — will drive up costs, de­lay the project and force most of the work­ers to pay union dues and pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions for which they likely will never re­ceive ben­e­fits.

North Branch Construction, a Con­cord, N.H.-based gen­eral con­trac­tor and mem­ber of the busi­ness group As­so­ci­ated Builders and Con­trac­tors (ABC), filed a bid protest last week with the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, claim­ing the PLA “un­duly re­stricts com­pe­ti­tion.”

“PLAs are spe­cial-in­ter­est hand­outs that deny tax­pay­ers the ac­count­abil­ity they de­serve from gov­ern­ment con­tracts,” said Ken Holmes, pres­i­dent of North Branch Construction.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hamp­shire Repub­li­can, said the scarcity of lo­cal union­ized work­ers and a sep­a­rate re­quire­ment that con­trac­tors must have com­pleted three pre­vi­ous suc­cess­ful PLA projects to qual­ify to bid will es­sen­tially pre­vent lo­cal firms from com­pet­ing for the Manch­ester project.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to dis­crim­i­nate against suc­cess­ful and in­de­pen­dent construction firms sim­ply be­cause New Hamp­shire em­ploy­ees choose to work in a union-free work­place and not bow down to the de­mands of Big La­bor is ex­tremely un­fair to our state,” the se­na­tor said, call­ing on the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­voke the PLA.

“In a time of eco­nomic hard­ship, it is sim­ply ab­surd to dis­crim­i­nate against lo­cal con­trac­tors and construction work­ers for the ben­e­fit of na­tional la­bor unions,” he added.

Union of­fi­cials ar­gue that PLAs, which in­cor­po­rate col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments into the con­tract, en­sure the construction com­pa­nies hire highly skilled work­ers and pay them fair wages.

“Rather than all the money go­ing to the con­trac­tor profit, a fair share goes into the worker’s pay­check,” said Greg De­nier,

com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for Change to Win, a coali­tion of unions that in­cludes the La­bor­ers’ In­ter­na­tional Union of North Amer­ica.

Brett McMa­hon, vice pres­i­dent of busi­ness de­vel­op­ment for Miller & Long Co. Inc., the coun­try’s largest con­crete sub­con­trac­tor and the largest em­ployer of construction work­ers in the Mid-At­lantic re­gion, ar­gued that it was the unions that are ex­ploit­ing the work­ers.

“In or­der to go to work, you have to pay for it,” Mr. McMa­hon said.

He said that un­less the work­ers join a union, they would not be ex­pected to ac­cu­mu­late enough con­sec­u­tive hours on union jobs to be­come vested in the pen­sion plan. The money paid into the plan would then be for­feited to the fund.

He also noted that the eco­nomic re­ces­sion has left few large-scale construction jobs other than fed­eral projects, and that most construction work­ers are not union mem­bers. As a re­sult, he said, the PLA forces nonunion work­ers des­per­ate for jobs to choose be­tween join­ing the union or for­feit­ing any pay­ments to the unions.

Tom Owens, spokesman for the AFL-CIO’s Build­ing and Construction Trades Depart­ment, said the money paid into union pen­sion funds can be used only to ben­e­fit work­ers. He also said pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions do not come out of work­ers’ pay­checks.

“It comes from the con­trac­tor,” he said.

He said Miller & Long is the per­fect ex­am­ple of why PLAs are nec­es­sary. He said the com­pany has a his­tory of assem­bling the most in­ex­pen­sive work force it can find, re­ly­ing mostly on il­le­gal im­mi­grants — a prac­tice, he said, that had sup­pressed wages and forced black work­ers out of the construction in­dus­try.

Mr. McMa­hon called the union’s ac­cu­sa­tions a “tired old re­frain” that has no bear­ing on the PLA is­sue.

“You don’t stay in busi­ness 60 years by do­ing that,” he said.

He also chal­lenged the AFLCIO’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the pen­sion con­tri­bu­tion, say­ing that pay­ment into the union fund is cal­cu­lated as part of a worker’s to­tal com­pen­sa­tion pack­age.

About 16 per­cent of the coun­try’s construction trades work­ers were union mem­bers or cov­ered by union con­tracts in 2008, de­spite union work­ers gen­er­ally re­ceiv­ing higher pay and bet­ter ben­e­fits than their nonunion coun­ter­parts, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics.

In New Hamp­shire, just 8.7 per­cent of construction work­ers are union­ized.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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