If a pair of bills receives a favorable reception from state lawmakers next week, local governments will be well on their way to being prohibited from attaching mandatory project-labor agreements to public projects.
The state Assembly’s labor committee is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Room 417 North of the state Capitol to discuss Assembly Bill 24, which would ban the use of government-mandated project-labor agreements, also known as PLAs. Members of the Senate’s committee on labor and regulatory reform will then hear testimony on companion legislation starting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Room 412 East of the state Capitol.
If either bill is voted out of committee, it will move on to the full Legislature. State Rep. Rob Hutton, the Republican author of AB 24, said his goal is to have the proposal on the Assembly floor next month.
Opponents of government-mandated PLAs have long argued that the agreements more or less direct contracts to unionized companies, limiting competition and pushing up the cost of public projects. Now they believe a recent Dane County project has given them the perfect example needed to drive their points home.
Dane County officials released bid documents calling for the construction of a new bathroom at Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison. Contractors were initially given until Dec. 20 to respond.
The deadline was later pushed back to Jan. 10, though, by an addendum to the project’s specifications. Among other things, the change required contractors to be willing to sign a PLA as a condition of being chosen for the work at Henry Vilas Zoo
PLA opponents say evidence of the competition-suppressing effects of PLAs can be seen in a simple comparison of numbers related to the zoo project. Of the roughly 10 companies that Dane County records show at least looked at the specifications, only one ultimately submitted a bid.
And that company — Miron Construction, a unionized general contractor from Neenah — came in with a price that was more than twice as high as Dane County’s original estimate. When planning the new bathroom at Henry Vilas Zoo, county officials had estimated the project’s cost at $800,000; Miron’s base bid was for $1.64 million.
To be fair, says Joe Daniels, president of Madison-based Joe Daniels Construction, Dane County officials almost routinely underestimate the cost of public-works projects. Still, Daniels can’t help thinking a little additional competition — including from nonunion companies like his — would have resulted in a better offer.
Had he bid on the project, his price would have been closer to $1.1 million or $1.2 million, he said. As it was, he lost interest in the work as soon as a PLA became mandatory.
Daniels said he can’t speak for other company owners but said he wouldn’t be surprised if he learned he wasn’t the only one who dropped out because of Dane County’s insistence on a PLA. Daniels said he already provides his employees with good benefits. Why, then, would he also want to pay into union pension and health funds?
“My employees don’t want to be in a union,” Daniels said. “And we don’t want to have to pay into a benefits package that my employees would never benefit from. That doesn’t seem very fair to me.”
Stephanie Miller, communications director for Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, pointed out that county officials have not yet accepted Miron’s bid and are still considering the scope of the Henry Vilas Zoo project. Attempts to reach Miron representatives were unsuccessful Friday.
PLAs generally require companies to pledge not to strike or take steps that would otherwise disrupt the progress of a particular project. PLA proponents point out that public-bidding laws prevent governments from using the agreements to exclude non-union companies.
Firms with no union affiliation counter that PLAs nonetheless set up various barriers to submitting bids. Besides requiring companies to contribute to union-run pension and health care plans, PLAs can hold all contractors on a project – both generals and subs – to union standards concerning pay, safety and hours of work.
Proponents argue that those rules prevent construction crews from being overworked and exposed unnecessarily to jobsite dangers. They also contend that union standards help ensure that projects are built to a high level of quality.
In a previously released statement, for instance, Dane County Chief of Staff Josh Wescott argued that, “Project Labor Agreements help make sure the best of the best work on projects the public depends upon. PLAs don’t require union contractors be hired but they do help make sure jobs are done right the first time.”
Even as some state lawmakers push for the elimination of government-mandated PLAs, Dane County officials are showing no sign of backing down. They recently attached a PLA requirement to specs calling for the concourse of the Alliant Energy Center to be repainted.
John Mielke, president of the mostly nonunion Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, said mandatory PLAs are especially egregious when attached to small contracts. On complex, multi-year projects — say the construction of the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons and new Bucks arena in downtown Milwaukee — PLA proponents might be able to argue that the tradeoff of limited competition for labor peace is worthwhile.
“But here we are talking about a bathroom at the zoo and painting a concourse at the Alliance Center,” Mielke said. “It seems absurd.”