The Electrical Worker online
February 2024

Biden Issues Order Requiring PLAs on
Major Federal Projects
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Union workers received a multibillion-dollar boost when the Biden administration on Dec. 18 issued its final rule requiring project labor agreements on most federal construction projects, a total of $260 billion.

"This has never happened before," said International President Kenneth W. Cooper. "This is a very high standard, built to help working people and withstand the lawsuits nonunion contractors will inevitably bring."

Every year the federal government spends billions on construction and maintenance where it is the sole owner of the job. For decades, too much of that work went to low-wage, low-skill and low-productivity nonunion contractors.

Under this PLA plan, the federal government will set a high standard for safety, wages and training for any contractor that wants to benefit from projects paid for by Americans' taxes.

Previously, an Obama-era rule only encouraged federal agencies to use PLAs, and billions of dollars of projects were let to bid each year without them.

The new rule went into effect Jan. 22, and Cooper encouraged every local to ensure that federal construction, expansion or repair projects in their jurisdiction follow the order to the letter.

"Under this rule, 200,000 workers on federal projects will likely see increases in wages, benefits and safety protections," Cooper said. "And in return for improving the lives of workers, the taxpaying public will get safer jobsites at lower cost, done right on time, the first time."

Biden first issued the call for the rule in 2022, directing federal agencies to "require every contractor or subcontractor engaged in construction on the project to agree, for that project, to negotiate or become a party to a project labor agreement with one or more appropriate labor organizations."

That began a rulemaking process designed to armor the executive order against the inevitable legal attacks nonunion contractors will launch against it.

In fact, the Associated Builders and Contractors, the lobbying group for nonunion contractors, immediately issued a news release saying its lawyers were on their way to the courthouse to file a complaint.

"PLAs steer taxpayer-funded public works contracts to union-signatory contractors, granting union workers a monopoly to build these projects," ABC wrote.

The group complains that, between this executive order and requirements built into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS Act, "hundreds of billions of dollars of federally assisted infrastructure projects procured by state and local governments [and] clean energy and domestic microchip manufacturing projects" would now mandate PLAs.

As they should, said Government Affairs Director Danielle Eckert.

"There is no better guarantee that the nation benefits from federal money than requiring a PLA," she said. "And we have the numbers to prove it."

A study released in December 2022 by IPA Global found that public and private construction projects that used union labor had 4% lower costs, were 14% more productive and were 40% less likely to face skilled shortages than open-shop projects. The study included analysis of 1,550 projects over 20 years ranging from $200,000 to $6 billion.

Besides, the new rule and a PLA do not guarantee that only signatory contractors will win bids for federal projects. PLAs simply set a standard on wages and benefits; apprenticeship standards and crew makeup; and jobsite rules including dispute resolution, strike prohibitions, work hours and overtime, safety, and local hire.

Anyone who agrees to that standard has an equal shot.

It is a devastating blunder for ABC to say its members can't win when then standards are raised, said Government Affairs International Representative Taylor Waites.

"This just raises the minimum ante to get to the table. If your business model relies on underpaying workers or putting them in danger, you shouldn't get a penny of working people's money," Waites said.

Like all executive orders, it could be overturned by an unfriendly administration. "Making federal PLAs the law of the land is one more reason it is critical to reelect President Biden and support him with worker-friendly majorities in Congress," Cooper said.


With President Joe Biden's executive order in effect, more than $260 billion in federal construction projects are now required to have project labor agreements, increasing wages and benefits for nearly 200,000 workers.