A change in the political tide in recent years has stoked the debate over potential use of project labor agreements on government-funded projects in the Mid-Atlantic. During his first month in office, President Obama overturned a Bush administration executive order that banned PLAs on federally funded projects. Stopping short of a mandate, Obama drafted a new order encouraging the use of PLAs on projects valued at more than $25 million.
The final rule was published April 13, 2010, and took effect May 12; however, numerous PLAs on projects that are funded or backed by the federal government have already been announced.
Speaking before the Building and Construction Trades 2010 Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., in April, Mark Ayers, president of the Building and Construction Trades Dept. of the AFL-CIO, told members that 21 of 25 major Dept. of Energy projects awarded nationwide since last summer were under PLAs.
Meanwhile, PLAs have been signed on billions of dollars in proposed nuclear plant projects, which are backed with federal loan guarantees. In June 2009, BCTD reached an agreement with Bechtel to supply labor for the Calvert Cliffs 3 project in southern Maryland. The project, which includes a 1,600-megawatt reactor, could create an estimated 4,000 construction jobs.
At the April BCTD conference, Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted that the administration would seek to expand loan guarantees for nuclear power plant construction as part of future climate change legislation, paving the way for �six to nine more reactors.�
Broader use of PLAs on major projects marks a significant political achievement for union trades people, Ayers says, promising that, �more is on the way.�
In fact, the District of Columbia could become a focal point of the debate. In addition to having a large inventory of significant federal building projects that could fall under future PLAs, the D.C. Council is considering mandating PLAs on all government-assisted projects valued at over $200,000. The bill, dubbed the District Resident Employment and Trade Stimulus Amendment Act of 2010, would amend the District�s First Source Employment Act. A public hearing on the issue is scheduled for June 28.
Associated Builders and Contractors of America is tackling the issue head on in D.C. This spring, the organization released a study on the potential impact of PLA mandates in the District. The study reports that construction union membership in D.C. has declined from 18.9% in 2000 to 12% in 2009, below the 14.5% national average.
�The clear implication is that the unionized workforce simply doesn�t have the capacity to take on all of this work,� says Anirban Basu, chief economist at ABC, noting that 1,067 of 8,870 D.C. construction workers were union members as of 2009.
Basu says that while non-union workers could work under a PLA, ABC found that �there was tremendous resistance among non-union contractors to participate in projects with union rules.�
Jim Anglemyer, president of D.C.-based WCS Construction, agrees, noting that under PLAs, non-union workers could be required to recognize unions as representatives of their employees and would thereby be required to pay union dues. In addition to paying benefits for their employees, employers might also have to pay into union health and pension plans.