The Wisconsin Assembly approved a bill on Thursday that would prevent local governments from using mandatory project-labor agreements in ways that critics say favor unions.
The state Assembly voted 64-35 in favor of Senate Bill 3, which would ban certain provisions that local governments have been known to include in mandatory project-labor agreements, also known at mandatory PLAs. The vote was along party lines; all Republicans voted in favor of the proposal and all Democrats against.
SB 3 was already passed out of the state Senate last month in a 19-13 vote along party lines. That means all it now needs to become law is Gov. Scott Walker’s signature.
Walker has signaled his support for the legislation by including almost identical language in the budget proposal he released last month.
Proponents say the bills would prevent local governments from using PLAs to give unionized companies an advantage when they are bidding for public contracts. They note that mandatory PLAs often require bidders to agree to contribute to union-run health and pension funds and to recruit workers through local labor halls.
Rather than take those steps, many non-union companies simply choose not to submit bids.
At a news conference ahead of Thursday’s vote, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester, said the bill is about getting the highest quality work at the lowest cost.
Rep. Rob Hutton, a Republican from Brookfield and the sponsor of the proposed ban on mandatory PLAs, said the bill would require governments to take a neutral stance when deciding which company should be awarded a public contract.
“We’re saying let the market decide, let the employer decide how they want to respond to that bid request,” he said.
Supporters also note that contractors will always be able to voluntarily enter into PLAs after they’ve won a contract. They will just no longer have to sign on to the agreements as a condition of bidding on public projects.
Those on the other side of the argument point out that PLAs are seldom required on government contracts in Wisconsin. They portray the debate as being largely over local control. If government officials have had good experiences with mandatory PLAs in the past, they ask, why should they be barred from using them again?
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, a Democrat from Kenosha, said the bill would restrict local governments’ control over how taxpayers’ money is spent. Other opponents have said the bill is the latest in a long series of Republican attacks on unions.
Vos responded on Thursday by saying the goal is not to harm labor organizations.
“I don’t think that the bills we are passing have to do with union power; they have to do with worker power,” he said. “It’s about letting people work where they choose, get a decent job and prevent taxpayers from getting taken to the cleaners.”
John Mielke, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, a group that represents mostly nonunion companies, commended the Assembly for its vote.
“Our association stands with any measure that encourages open competition for contractors and workers,” he said in an official statement. “It’s important to point out that the measure does not preclude the state or local governments from using project labor agreements to meet the highest of construction standards. It simply prohibits governmental officials from mandating workers on publicly-funded projects be represented by organized labor.”Follow @erikastrebel