Anti-union legislation seeking to limit the use of project labor agreements met determined resistance in January when the IBEW joined forces with signatory contractors and other unions to oppose it in Congress.

The deceptively named “Government Neutrality in Contracting Act” seeks to prohibit the use of project labor agreements on government-funded construction projects and revives a decades-old tit-for-tat between Democratic and Republican administrations over the use of the pre-construction agreements.

On Jan. 14, IBEW International President Lonnie R. Stephenson sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to oppose the bill, calling the legislation “unnecessary,” and touting the numerous benefits PLAs have provided since the 1930s.

“Workers, taxpayers and contractors each benefit from the use of PLAs,” Stephenson wrote, adding, “Construction performed under PLAs results in the safest, most well-built projects because only the highest-skilled workers are used.”

PLAs are agreements entered into prior to construction that supersede normal collective-bargaining agreements and are often used to bring order to especially complicated projects involving multiple trades and phases. They are commonly used to provide for things like efficient dispute resolution and to ensure certain percentages of local hires and requirements of employment baselines for women and minority workers.

In the federal government, PLAs are optional, but their use has been generally encouraged under Democratic administrations. George W. Bush, however, notably banned their use by executive order at the beginning of his first term in 2001.

Critics argue that PLAs unfairly benefit union contractors because of the pre-bid nature of the agreements, but nonunion contractors are free to bid on any project provided they agree to pay the wages and benefits specified in the PLA and that they meet the agreement’s rigorous safety standards.

“The truth is PLAs virtually eliminate the costly delays of labor conflicts or skilled worker shortages,” said Dan Gardner, an international representative in the IBEW’s Political and Legislative Affairs Department. “They’re vital tools in making sure jobs come in on time and on budget.”

For now, the anti-PLA bill faces an uncertain future. Sponsored by Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, the legislation passed out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Jan. 12, but it has yet to be scheduled for a vote by the full House. A number of moderate Republicans are thought to be persuadable, and the Building and Construction Trades Department at the AFL-CIO is planning a push to target them in the coming weeks.

In the event the bill reaches the Senate, however, Democrats would likely have the votes to block it with a filibuster. Barack Obama has also been supportive of PLAs in government-funded construction projects in the past, evidence by his 2009 executive order overturning Bush’s ban on their use.

In his letter, Stephenson pointed to the extensive use of PLAs by private corporations who haven’t always been known for cozying up to labor. Wal-Mart, for example, regularly uses PLAs in the construction of its stores. Toyota and Boeing, who have both faced criticism from unions for moving jobs to the right-to-work South, have also benefited from the agreements in the construction of their plants.

Marco A. Giamberardino, executive director of government affairs for the National Electrical Contractors Association, weighed in with a letter to members of Congress as well. On behalf of NECA’s 4,000 member contractors, he argued that the “misguided” bill restricting the use of PLAs would deny the government an important procurement tool.

“PLAs ensure a steady flow of highly trained construction labor and reduce some of the uncertainty inherent in large-scale construction projects,” Giamberardino wrote. “Extensive training requirements, coupled with fair compensation, save taxpayers money by ensuring on-time and on-budget completion of projects.”

“It’s unfortunate that the anti-union elements in Congress continue these sorts of ideological political attacks every chance they get,” Stephenson said. “Stopping this bill is important not just to us, but to taxpayers too. “

PLAs remain one of the most effective ways to stop government projects from dragging on years behind schedule and racking up billions in cost overruns, Stephenson said. “Keeping them as a tool to combat waste is just the responsible thing to do.”

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user bootbearwdc.