Project labor agreements that incorporate community workforce agreements are on the rise nationwide and are becoming more comprehensive than they were prior to 2004, according to a new study by Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School.

CWAs, which typically include training and apprenticeships, help in job creation and career development, particularly for disadvantaged communities, says Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of the Washington-based American Rights at Work, a pro-union advocacy group that commissioned the study. This is an especially welcome development at a time when frustration over the nation's high unemployment rate and lack of job creation mounts as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street protests, she says. CWAs, she adds, are "a way out of this."

The study, "Community Workforce Provisions in Project Labor Agreements: A Tool for Building Middle-Class Careers," examines 185 PLAs signed by 70 building trades councils nationwide during the last 15 years and includes case studies. Some 97% of the PLAs incorporated one or more CWAs, most of which have goals of hiring local area residents and using apprenticeship programs. Also, 139 of the PLAs included Helmets-to-Hardhats provisions, which focus on recruiting veterans; 103 included hiring of women and minorities; and 45 included employment and career opportunities for those who are economically disadvantaged.

While PLAs are not limited to union participation, some groups have criticized New York City's use of these contracts in 2009 for construction projects worth nearly $6 billion. The groups, the Building Industry Electrical Contractors Association and United Electrical Contractors Association, accuse the city of favoring union over non-union shops via these agreements. These groups are appealing a federal judge's ruling that PLAs between NYC and the Building and Construction Trades Council do not violate the National Labor Relations Act.

"One of the reasons non-union contractors remain nonunion is that they don't have the capacity" that unions do to fulfill the PLA requirements, such as the provision of apprenticeship programs, says Gary LaBarbera, president of the Buildings and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which represents about 100,000 union workers in New York City and participated in the study. PLAs have created many thousands of jobs, including apprenticeships for local residents, he adds.

Meanwhile, the issue of jobs lost to non-union contractors was at the heart of many of the collective bargaining talks this past summer when 22 union contracts were due to expire on June 30.

"This was the most difficult and contentious negotiation cycle that I've ever experienced in my career," says Louis Coletti, president, Building Trades Employers' Association, which represents 28 union contractor groups. "This is the worst economic climate that I've seen, and it set the tone of the discussions to be that much more emotional."