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Close to Home: In defense of project labor deals

  • 9/19/2012: A1:

    PC: Those in favor of Planned Labor Agreements (PLA's) including George Steffenson, right, of Santa Rosa an Operating Engineers (Local 3) Apprenticeship Coordinator, raise their hands during a meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Tuesday August 18, 2012. The board is in the process of debating the awarding of large construction projects to PLA's. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

There has been a lot of talk of late about the use of project labor agreements on taxpayer-funded construction projects in Sonoma County. A project labor agreement is a market-based project management tool that has been utilized increasingly in both the public and private sectors to achieve greater jobsite efficiencies that result in on-time and on-budget construction.

For public agencies looking to invest taxpayer dollars in today's construction market, they, just like corporations in the private sector, essentially have two distinct business models from which to choose.

The first is a business model that is epitomized by the use of PLAs. It is a business model that offers increased jobsite efficiencies through a 21st century labor-management approach based upon cooperation, harmony and partnership. And it is an approach that ensures that the construction owner will have a steady, local supply of the world's safest, most highly skilled and productive skilled-craft workforce -#8212; a workforce that, in turn, receives a pay and benefits package reflective of their skill and productivity levels (which, numerous studies have shown, actually reduces costs for public agencies).

Further, the PLA model promotes the development of additional opportunities for local residents -#8212; particularly military veterans, women and minorities -#8212; to gain access to career training opportunities in the skilled trades.

In Sonoma County, union apprenticeship programs are providing career pathways to the middle class by training more than 93 percent (519) of the state- and federal-registered apprentices, covering all of the building trades with high graduation rates. The non union programs account for 7 percent (37) of the apprenticeship workforce, covering only four of the 15 building trades, with state audits revealing a pattern of poor graduation rates over many years.

This PLA model lies in stark contrast to the race-to-the-bottom business model that permeates the U.S. construction industry today and whose advocates staunchly believe that contracts in the industry ought to be awarded based primarily upon a contractor's ability to assemble the lowest-cost, oftentimes the most vulnerable and exploitable, workforce possible.

Further, these disreputable employers are increasingly turning to misclassifying employees as "independent contractors" in order to avoid the payment of taxes and benefits. The opponents of PLAs frequently like to talk about ensuring fair and open competition when it comes to public construction; but these types of race-to-the-bottom business practices beg the question as to what constitutes their definition of fair and open competition.

Probably the best argument for PLAs in the public sector is that large, sophisticated, experienced and cost-conscious owners, developers, construction managers and contractors, all of whom are driven by profit, have utilized them for decades in the private sector. They want the best results in the most cost-effective and time-sensitive manner possible. Disney World, Gillette, Reebok, dozens of professional sports stadiums and all eight of Toyota's American manufacturing facilities are but several examples of major private projects that have utilized PLAs.

If project labor agreements continue to be utilized by the profit-oriented private sector, there must be a reason. Clearly, that reason is this: They work.

And if they work for the private sector, they will work for the public sector. Just ask the College of Marin trustees or the Marin General Hospital District.


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