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Taxpayers deserve open competition, open process for public projects

Nick Novak is the director of marketing and communications at ABC of Wisconsin.Nick Novak is the director of marketing and communications at ABC of Wisconsin

Nick Novak is the director of marketing and communications at ABC of Wisconsin.

In this day and age, information is readily available for almost anything. Not sure how to make repairs to your washing machine? Watch a YouTube video walking you through the steps. Questioning a new restaurant? Check out its reviews on Google and Yelp.

People make decisions in response to what others tweet or post to Facebook every day. That is why companies are becoming more involved than ever on the Internet and social media. Even I’m guilty of complaining on Twitter about airline companies for delaying my flights. And almost every time, they have responded in just a couple of seconds with an attempt at resolving the situation.

This openness should not just apply to the corner deli or airline industry. It can be used for nearly everything. In fact, it’s what drives today’s free market. Because information is so readily available, I can probably find a better price and better service for nearly any product within a matter of minutes.

For example, let’s look at the construction industry. Decades ago, it may have been a struggle to discern a quality contractor because the information simply was not available. Because of this, union firms — somewhat successfully — argued that they were the only ones who could be trusted.

Today, that is not the case. Both merit-shop and union contractors can openly compete against each other using their records of quality and safety, in addition to price. And that is information that owners — whether private or public entities — can easily access.

That is why it is unfortunate to see many cities and school districts that have restrictive project-labor agreements, also known as PLAs, and union-only requirements when hiring a company for a construction project. By requiring some or all of the workforce to be unionized, a large majority of workers are shut out.

In fact, only 19 percent of the construction workforce in Wisconsin is unionized*, according to the independent UnionStats database. That means about 8 in 10 construction workers in the state are non-union.

Why would a local school district or city want to ban 81 percent of the workforce when looking for bids on a project? A decision like that would drastically reduce competition, translating into higher costs for taxpayers.

According to policies put forth by the Madison Metropolitan School District, “The preference of the school board shall be to select contractors that are signatory with one or more local labor organizations and/or local contractors.”

The board will also give union contractors a chance to match the bid of the lowest responsible bidder if it is a non-union and non-local firm. However, nowhere in the district’s policies does it explicitly say merit-shop contractors would be given the chance to match or beat the bid of a union firm.

Another example is on the Judge Doyle Square project in Madison. If the project does resume, its PLA requires 90 percent of the resulting construction work to be done by union workers. Regrettably, agreements like this stretch all the way up to places like Superior, a city that has numerous PLAs on road and building projects.

This anti-competitive nature directly hurts construction workers who have freely chosen not to join a union.

These policies should not do a complete 180, though. Instead of giving preference one way or the other, cities, counties, school districts and other public entities should simply open competition for projects to all responsible bidders — union and merit shop, alike.

Fortunately for the construction workers in our state, there are projects that are seeing the benefits of increased competition. Unlike past projects that had union-only language written into the proposals, the new Bucks arena, the Alliant power plant in Beloit and the development surrounding Lambeau Field were all approved without specific language requiring that union firms do the work. This will increase competition, leading to high-quality construction and lower costs for the people footing the bill.

Governments with outdated policies should look to projects like these to see why it is time to scrap PLAs and let the free enterprise system work.

* Editor’s note: Union groups say the UnionStats figure is skewed because it only counts actual union members and leaves out the many white-collar workers who work at unionized companies. Thus, they argue, the percentage of the industry that is unionized is actually greater than it appears in the numbers.

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