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National PLA debate hits frenzied pitch

Sean Ryan

As a national argument rages over project-labor agreements on federal contracts, the city of Superior, which approved similar rules last year, is applying them to projects without much fuss.

The same dispute often pops up when government officials talk about PLAs: Unions claim the agreements will save money on contracts, and nonunion contractors retort the PLAs will limit competition.

“It’s a political argument,” said Robert Heise, president of the Minnesota Associated Builders and Contractors, an organization that represents primarily nonunion contractors and deals with PLA requirements in Duluth and St. Louis County, Minn. “I think we can win the economic argument, and maybe they think they can win the economic argument. I can give you our studies, and they can give you their studies.

“But, in the end, it’s politics.”

Superior last year hosted a smaller version of the PLA debate now taking place nationally as the federal government drafts rules to allow the agreements on contracts. The agreements prohibit strikes and lockouts, dictate procedures to resolve labor disputes and create other forms of labor-management cooperation, such as agreements for wage and benefit payments.

According to the Superior PLA rule, the city has the option to call for PLAs on any city projects, no matter the cost.

Local unions and the Wisconsin ABC chapter lobbied the Superior City Council last year to the point where council members said they didn’t know what to believe about PLAs. Since approving the PLA rule, Superior has applied the agreement to three contracts without controversy, said Dan Olson, chairman of the Superior City Council and business manager of Laborers Local 1091 in Duluth, Minn., which shares a border with Superior.

“That has all been resolved, and everybody has shaken hands and walked away from it,” he said. “We haven’t seen any downturn in bidding.”

It’s incorrect to argue PLAs do not limit competition or increase contract prices, said Ben Brubeck, labor and state affairs director, government affairs for national ABC. Nobody can tell whether the same contract would have not been cheaper if it were bid without a PLA, he said.

Brubeck and ABC are in the heat of the national PLA debate because Thursday was the deadline to submit comments on draft rules outlining when and how PLAs should be applied to federal contracts worth more than $25 million. He said the same debate rages for every public PLA proposal because the issues never change — nonunion builders worry about limited competition increasing contract costs, taxpayers want cheaper projects and unions claim PLAs will lower prices.

“We believe we’re right,” Brubeck said. “And I believe the other side believes they’re right, too.”

ABC might choose to file a lawsuit against the federal PLA requirement to let a judge decide who is right, Brubeck said.

Deborah Aldrich, project manager for Stahl Construction Co., Minneapolis, said there’s no simple answer to whether PLAs are good are bad. Stahl is a nonunion contractor that works on numerous PLA projects.

PLAs sometimes cut out nonunion subcontractors that cannot afford higher benefits payments required by union contracts, Aldrich said. PLAs also can be helpful because they prevent strikes that occur during contract renegotiations between unions and signatory contractors, she said.

“We’re OK either way,” Aldrich said.

Olson said he knows the federal debate is in full frenzy, but he said he’s keeping out of it.

“I’m just kind of keeping my nose up here,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of PLAs up here, and they’ve been successful and they’ve been challenged to no end.”

One comment

  1. Thanks for your fair reporting Sean.

    There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests that a PLA will decrease competition and increase construction costs. It is difficult to understand the numerous and compelling arguments on both sides of the debate in a brief article.

    Readers can access that evidence at http://www.abc.org/plastudies.

    You can learn up to date information about this issue and weigh in on the federal debate at http:// http://www.TheTruthAboutPLAs.com

    Truly free and open competition is conducive to production, economic growth and efficient use of limited resources. It is in the public interest, especially when public contracts and tax dollars are concerned, that all qualified and capable contractors and workers are fairly considered. PLAs injure competition from qualified contractors and their skilled workforce.

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