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Unions, construction lobby wage war over D.C. Council bill


At the John A. Wilson Building, a little-noticed but highly contentious war between labor unions and construction business is playing out on Wednesday in a packed council hearing, with the upcoming city elections as a backdrop.

The battle has been prompted by a bill introduced in February by D.C. Council members Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) that would essentially require union labor on all construction projects receiving more than $200,000 in city assistance and further require that contractors hire certain numbers of District residents.

Needless to say, these "project labor agreements" have the strong support of local labor leaders, and unions are pushing hard for the bill. But construction and business interests are deeply opposed to the legislation. The trade group Associated Builders and Contractors has devoted a Web site to opposing PLAs across the country, and the group also released a study in March claiming that a PLA mandate would "likely to have a destabilizing impact on an already depressed industry ... leading to reduced employment of local residents and considerable harm to small and disadvantaged businesses."

Brown's bill, which attracted a crowd so large to Wednesday's hearing that some spectators had to be sent to an overflow room, is no doubt an election-year issue. In February, a key union organizer called the bill "the No. 1 priority for labor in 2010," adding, "We're judging everybody based on where they come down on this bill."

So far, it's not clear that the litmus-testing is going to get the unions what they want. The local AFL-CIO Metro Council asked council candidates about the bill on its candidate questionnaires. Among incumbents, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) pledged to supported to the measure, but some usually reliable union backers have hedged their bets.

"I can't say YES at this time because I want to hear the testimony at the hearing," Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) wrote on his questionnaire. Wrote Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs one of the two committees that would have to move on the legislation: "I believe that this bill requires careful consideration and is best done away from the heat of campaigns."

And Council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large), usually a stalwart supporter of union interests, declined to say he'd support the bill at all. "I support the concept of the legislation but the issue needs further study," he wrote.

File photo by Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post

By Mike DeBonis  |  June 30, 2010; 1:36 PM ET
Categories:  The District  
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good ole labor unions - protect the lazy sloths at the expense of hard workers. it's long past time for merit pay for all and get the grubby union boss hands out of everyone's pocket. the criminals serve no useful purpose in this country any longer.

Posted by: habari2 | June 30, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Mike, thanks for covering this important issue. I'd like to offer a correction to this article.

The language in the legislation says that the project labor agreement (PLA) mandate applies to all DC construction projects greater than or equal to $200K that receive assistance from the city.

Your reporting indicates the PLA mandate would apply to projects receiving $200K or more in DC assistance. This is an error.

The way this legislation is written triggers a PLA mandate on a project if it is valued over $200K whether it receives $1 dollar of city assistance, $1 million dollars of city assistance, or some form of land improvement, zoning etc. It is unclear what constitutes "assistance" as it is poorly defined in the bill.

I can see why there is confusion because figuring out how many projects would be affected by this bill is one of the questions the DC Council is trying to address. The bill is poorly worded and confusing but as it is written today, the legislation means that almost every DC public construction project would require all-union labor (because all-union labor is what a PLA requires) because almost every D.C. construction project is valued over $200K.

My opinion is that the goal of this bill - to create construction jobs for DC residents - is a worthy cause. However, the PLA is not the correct tool to achieve this important objective. What the bill will do is funnel public work to contractors signatory to labor unions (commonly known as union contractors).

This makes little sense when just 12 percent of the District construction workforce belongs to labor unions according to You can’t cut almost 9 out of 10 District construction workers, who choose not to belong to a union for a variety of reasons, and expect this legislation to magically create more jobs for D.C. residents. Also, the bill would eliminate contractors that employ 90 percent of the D.C. construction labor pool from competing for District construction projects, so costs will go up because of a lack of competition. Taxpayers will have to pay these added costs and residents will get fewer construction projects because there are finite construction budgets/spending.

With or without a PLA, contractors on DC projects must pay to employees wage and benefit rates set by the federal Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law that is essentially the union wage, so workers don’t really gain anything from the PLA in this area.

However, nonunion workers would likely not be employed on PLA projects as a PLA requires a contractor to hire labor from union halls. That means if I am a nonunion contractor, I would have to tell my existing nonunion employees they can’t work on a PLA project while a group of unfamiliar union workers come in and do the work. Imagine if the Redskins told their defensive line they were being replaced for a game by the Eagles defensive line? It would ruin the ability of the team to stay on the same page and win the game.

Posted by: ConstructionandLabor | June 30, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

The only group that benefits from these PLA schemes are labor unions. This bill is an attempt by Big Labor to get their friends in government to create a monopoly for Big Labor because their membership and market share is dwindling and they need help competing in the free market.

D.C. residents would be better served by the DC council if they moved legislation that promoted training programs that give residents the skills to succeed in today’s service economy. They should also enforce local hiring goals and laws for construction projects already pushed by DOES.

Posted by: ConstructionandLabor | June 30, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Brown And Mr Thomas are making tough decisions. Its the only way a self absorbed Mayor and a waffling self centered chairman of the economic development committe can be forced to follow hiring and equal business opportunity regs.

Vote Gray for Mayor
Vote Orange for Chairman.

Posted by: gordonbundy | June 30, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

ConstructionAndLabor--I completely agree with your second comment at 4:24 pm. And that is why I was aghast that the mayor's proposed budget for 2011 cut funding for adult education in the OSSE. There will never be enough union jobs for everyone who could work with some good training so it seems backward to me for the Council to go more and more in the direction of trying to force employers to hire DC. Better to go all out to train and educate people so all are prepared to get their own jobs without any further government help.

Posted by: 1citizen | June 30, 2010 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Good goal but there could be better ways of achieving it.

Posted by: mamaspearl | July 1, 2010 6:35 AM | Report abuse

Here is a video of the hearing:

It's 8 hours and 41 minutes. Get out the popcorn!

From 1:58 to 2:03, Councilperson Cheh questions Gerry Waites, a union attorney and PLA proponent. Waites explains that you have to be a union member or have to join a union and pay union dues in order to work on a PLA project and any pension money paid into the union programs will be forfeited unless they remain in a union and meet vesting schedules. Nonunion employees lose under a PLA.

Posted by: ConstructionandLabor | July 1, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Actually that's incorrect ConstructionandLabor, unless Mary Cheh was mistaken.

As she said at the hearing, "This bill would amend the First Source Employment Act and require the Chief Procurement Office to include an enhanced mandate on the District government with respect to District-assisted construction projects that receive a subsidy of more than $200,000."

Posted by: cc6152a | July 1, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

I believe Councilman Graham actually discussed the confusing language of the bill in the hearing yesterday.

Here is text from the bill:

"The Chief Procurement Officer and each District Contracting Officer shall include in each government-assisted or government subsidized construction project, totaling
$200,000 or more, provisions that:..."

So the way it is written is projects valued at more than $200K that receive a form of assistance.

Posted by: ConstructionandLabor | July 1, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

I just spoke with Brown's legislative director. He said although the language is ambiguous and requires clarification, the intent was to have it be projects that receive subsidies totaling $200,000 or more.

Posted by: cc6152a | July 2, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

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