|PLAs IN THE CROSSHAIRS
In Calif., D.C., the Right Pushes ABC's Agenda
In the past year, two California municipalities have passed anti-union initiatives that have many construction workers throughout the state worried about their jobs and future.
Proposition G, passed this June, prohibits Chula Vista—a small city south of San Diego—from using project labor agreements on government-funded projects, giving low-wage nonunion contractors an advantage over union ones.
"This is a blow that will reverberate across the country," said San Diego Local 569 Organizer/Political Director Jennifer Badgley.
Southern California is ground zero for the open-shop Associated Builders and Contractors' legislative campaign against PLAs, a campaign which is increasingly taking on national dimensions as Republican candidates running for office across the country—from the state house on up—pledge to end the use of PLAs on both federal and state projects.
PLA opponents have been successfully tapping into voters' concerns about tight government budgets and declining revenues to convince many of them that taxpayers can't afford PLAs. Proposition G was spearheaded by ABC and the Coalition for Fair Employment, an anti-union group run by GOP operative and former George W. Bush fundraiser Eric Christen.
Chula Vista is ABC's second big win after Orange County voted to ban PLAs last year. And now the group is gunning for bigger victories.
The San Diego Board of Supervisors has placed an anti-PLA initiative on the ballot for November, and Christen boasted to the Los Angeles Business Journal that he is planning to target Los Angeles and Long Beach in 2012.
"If [ABC] wins [in Chula Vista], they will have momentum going into other fights in California, and you can rest assured that we will see this strategy replicated in short order in other states," said Building Trades President Mark Ayers in a letter to union leaders shortly before the June vote.
You Get What You Pay For
For more than 60 years, project labor agreements, project-specific, pre-hire collective bargaining agreements, have been a vital tool for contractors and managers—both public and private—to provide cost-efficient, high-quality, on-time construction.
And for construction workers, both union and nonunion, PLAs maintain decent wages and benefits, while ensuring a steady supply of highly-trained and professional tradesmen.
"Project labor agreements make sense for public works projects because they promote a planned approach to labor relations, allow contractors to more accurately predict labor costs and schedule production timetables, reduce the risks of shoddy work and costly disruptions, and encourage greater efficiency and productivity," wrote Cornell University researcher Fred Kotler in a 2009 study of PLAs.
While PLAs are not automatically union—as often misrepresented—many do in fact include collectively bargained wages and benefits. Those wages and benefits—which average $13 more per hour than nonunion scale; $28.35 when benefits are included—not only boost workers' paychecks, but also translate into increased productivity and reinvestment in the community.
A report by labor researchers Maria Figueroa and Jeff Grabelsky analyzing construction unionization in Massachusetts found: "Unionization in (construction) not only increases the incomes of workers but also yields economic benefits that ripple through the economy."
PLA opponents routinely denounce union labor for higher wages, but Figueroa and Grabelsky find that low-wage nonunion labor has widespread and indirect costs.
The authors write: "There are economic and social costs associated with the lower quality of the training provided to nonunion workers, and the consequent higher number of occupational injuries they endure … Labor costs savings, however, can translate into costs being shifted onto taxpayers and society as a whole, when employers fail to pay appropriate levels of payroll taxes and workers' compensation premiums."
Many nonunion contractors don't provide health insurance, so medical bills in the risky industry are often borne by the state. And many nonunion employers misrepresent their employees as independent contractors, cheating the government out of millions in taxes.
Decent wages also translate into higher productivity and lower accident rates.
The hidden costs of the ABC "low-road" model are currently on display in Reno, Nev. Management at the Hyatt Place hotel at the Reno airport had to bring in local union workers to fix the shoddy work done by an out-of-state contractor, who was awarded the job back in 2008 after underbidding union contractors and using poorly paid, lower-skilled employees.
"The contractor that did the work is bankrupt," said Paul McKenzie of the Northern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council. "They've gone out of business and so they have to bring another person in to redo the work they did because they had an inferior product."
He estimates that it will cost the owner nearly double his initial bid to have the work redone.
From California to Capitol Hill
ABC's efforts in California are only one part of the group's strategy to eat away at union market share in construction.
The private construction industry has been hammered hard by the recession, making government-funded construction projects, particularly federal ones, some of the only big jobs at the moment.
But an executive order issued by President Obama in 2009, which reversed a Bush-era rule banning federally-funded PLAs, has made it harder for low-wage contractors to get their foot in the door.
So ABC is keeping a close eye on the 2010 midterm elections and hoping the results will elevate one of their strongest congressional allies—Ohio Rep. John Boehner (R)—into the speaker's chair.
ABC has been a top donor to the GOP minority leader since he started his congressional career and Boehner has returned the favor, even introducing a resolution in June honoring the group.
More importantly, he has promised to take up ABC's agenda if the GOP picks up enough seats to form a majority this November. "I will run Congress differently than it is being run today," he said at ABC's legislative conference in June.
Part of that agenda includes ending federal encouragement of PLAs—which is denounced on Boehner's blog as a means to "reward union bosses"—and defeating proposals to establish "high-road" contracting standards, which would require federal contractors to maintain certain wage and benefit levels.
The message has also percolated to the right-wing media, with Fox News and TV host Glenn Beck taking up the anti-PLA agenda, denouncing them as special-interest giveaways.
"ABC is making this political because they don't want people taking a closer look at their workplace model," said Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, spokesman Tom Owens. "It's a low-road model that provides no career opportunities, lousy benefits and that ends up being a drain on the larger community."
Local 569's Jennifer Badgley says the building trades are gearing up to mobilize their members and community allies to push back against ABC's efforts this fall.
She points to last year's successful multi-million dollar PLA between the building trades and the San Diego Unified School District—which is renovating and expanding school facilities—as an example of how PLAs can increase productivity, save time and money and create good job opportunities. "The bids were competitive and came in under the school's budget."
The IBEW in California is also focusing on the hotly contested gubernatorial race between former Gov. Jerry Brown and former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, building grassroots support for the pro-labor Brown. "November is a big organizing campaign for us, because the future of our jobs and this union are going to be decided in Sacramento and Washington, D.C," Badgley said.
"It's clear that ABC and open-shop forces are betting on a GOP majority to enforce their race-to-the-bottom model on the industry," said International President Edwin D. Hill. "It's vital that every member do their homework and see where their representatives stand on the issue, because it's our jobs that are at stake."