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PLAs on projects good news for Wisconsin

Emily Pritzkow is executive director of the Wisconsin Building Trades Council, whose 17-member craft organizations represent 40,000 voices of working men and women across Wisconsin.

Late last week, John Mielke, president of ABC Wisconsin, submitted commentary lamenting items he felt weren’t mentioned by President Biden while visiting Wisconsin to discuss the billions in bipartisan infrastructure funding that is headed our way. In short, he used a generational investment in our infrastructure to attack Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), a tool employed by labor and management to coordinate construction work, save taxpayer dollars and ensure local job creation. 

Mr. Mielke’s points rely on misinformation at best. At worst, his arguments demonstrate an unwillingness to look beyond short-term profits, and reject some basic principles regarding economics and long-term workforce retention. 

Wisconsin hasn’t seen transportation infrastructure investments of the magnitude since the creation of the Interstate Highway System 65 years ago. This massive prioritization of our infrastructure will rebuild our bridges and roads in communities across Wisconsin, especially for rural communities and historically underserved populations. 

The fact that a number of these projects will be constructed utilizing PLAs is good news for Wisconsin. PLAs are an agreement between a local labor force and a public or private entity — meaning they benefit both union and non-union workers. Dating back to the 1930s, PLAs provide for an efficient building process and prevent conflict by including mechanisms to solve disputes quickly. This means work continues on-schedule and under budget. Most importantly, PLAs boost local economies. Many agreements include requirements for local hiring, guaranteeing that government-funded projects keep their taxpayer dollars in the community.  

Will contractors be more likely to sign a PLA after federal legislation?

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While Mr. Mielke doesn’t cite the number, it should be noted that only directly federally funded projects ($35 billion of the massive $1.2 trillion in funding laid out the law) is explicitly subject to PLAs. Rightfully so, the usage of PLAs is encouraged for many other funding opportunities contained in the bill.  This is because the Biden Administration recognizes the value of PLAs, for all the obvious reasons.    

The real issue Mr. Mielke and ABC seem to have with PLAs appears to be accountability, in any form. PLAs guarantee that all workers will be paid as employees and have correct documentation, all contractors and subcontractors will be properly insured, will pay payroll taxes, and no workers are illegally misclassified or working for cash under the table. Mielke’s claim that PLAs are “bad news” or somehow exclude some Wisconsin workers is absurd.  In most cases, PLAs would raise pay and benefits for merit workers to actual area standard levels. 

Without PLAs, cut-rate contractors can lowball bids and bring in out-of-state workers for taxpayer funded public works projects. In short, the absence of fair rules of engagement can enable a race to the bottom that results in an underpaid and undertrained workforce, unsafe working conditions, and a sub-par product. This strategy might produce short-term profits for certain contractors, but also produces long-term negative consequences for the industry and the communities we are a part of. 

In the unionized building trades, we count on our contractors as partners. We look to them to tell us what they need to perform and what we need to do to remain competitive, while also bringing a voice for workers into that process. We want to bring projects home on time, safe and under budget. As leaders in construction, we should always be working together on ways to drive growth here in Wisconsin. 

It’s long past time to set aside the cheap political shots and ideology. The modernization our state will soon undergo requires rejecting the view that construction jobs mean labor versus industry. In truth, it must be labor and industry, working in unison to build better and safer living conditions and livelihoods for Wisconsin. Investments in long-neglected priorities like clean water, safe roads and bridges, resiliency measures to help our communities withstand more extreme weather events, and retrofitting vertical infrastructure that puts us on a path to a cleaner, greener economy — these are all necessary goals that we must move forward on together.

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