Unions Once Deemed Project Labor Agreements to Be Appropriate for Massive Infrastructure Construction Projects; Now They Demand PLAs for Bathroom Renovations

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There was a time not too long ago when construction union officials in California and nationwide argued that Project Labor Agreements were an appropriate “construction management tool” for large multi-year infrastructure projects that require contractors to coordinate large numbers of workers in many trades.

For example, the only Project Labor Agreement case to come before the California Supreme Court was Associated Builders And Contractors, Inc., Golden Gate Chapter v. San Francisco Airports Commission (San Mateo County Building And Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, Real Party In Interest And Respondent). The San Francisco Airport Commission required contractors to sign a PLA for a ten-year, $2.4 billion expansion and renovation of the San Francisco International Airport.Photo of San Francisco International Airport taken by Kevin Dayton on July 1, 2012Here is how the court, in its August 16, 1999 decision against the Golden Gate Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, described Project Labor Agreements (referred to here as a PSA, or so-called Project Stabilization Agreement):

The PSA is an example of a type of prehire agreement designed for large and complex construction projects. It is designed to eliminate potential delays resulting from labor strife, to ensure a steady supply of skilled labor on the project, and to provide a contractually binding means of resolving worker grievances. Such agreements, also called project labor agreements, have long been used in large construction projects…

The immense size of projects once subjected to Project Labor Agreements is also revealed in the only Project Labor Agreement case to come before the U.S. Supreme Court. This case was Building & Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District v. Associated Builders & Contractors of Massachusetts/Rhode Island, Inc. (aka Boston Harbor), decided on March 8, 1993. Here is the description of the Boston Harbor project in this decision:

The cleanup project was expected to cost $6.1 billion over 10 years…In the spring of 1988, MWRA [Massachusetts Water Resources Authority] selected Kaiser Engineers, Inc., as its project manager. Kaiser was to be primarily in charge of managing and supervising construction activity. Kaiser also was to advise MWRA on the development of a labor relations policy that would maintain worksite harmony, labor-management peace, and overall stability throughout the duration of the project. To that end, Kaiser suggested to MWRA that Kaiser be permitted to negotiate an agreement with the Building and Construction Trades Council and affiliated organizations (BCTC) that would assure labor stability over the life of the project…MWRA accepted Kaiser’s suggestion, and Kaiser accordingly proceeded to negotiate the Boston Harbor Wastewater Treatment Facilities Project Labor Agreement.

And the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in with a decision on October 28, 1998 about the legality of a Project Labor Agreement imposed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). Once again, notice the size of the projects and the rationale for the PLA:

MWD determined that it would construct the Eastside Reservoir Project, which will expand water storage capacity for the area it serves. The cost of that project will be in the neighborhood of two billion dollars. It will, obviously, require large numbers of companies and laborers to bring it to completion. MWD also decided to construct the Inland Feeder Project, which is a water distribution pipeline that will cost about one billion dollars. In an attempt to assure a good measure of labor harmony, MWD pursued the negotiation of the PLAs with a number of unions.

Times have changed. Now, watch a few excerpts from this video of the April 10, 2012 Duarte City Council meeting at 25:00 and at 32:05:

Duarte (California) City Council Meeting – April 10, 2012 – PLA Policy Discussion

Ron Miller of the Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council emphasizes that local governments should follow the lead of the Los Angeles Unified School District and require contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements for “$50,000-$60,000 toilet room remodels.” Then Ray Van der Nat, a lawyer for construction unions, brags that the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District imposed a PLA for specialty projects worth $25,000 or more and general projects worth $125,000 or more. He noted that the Los Angeles Unified School District also has a specialty project cost threshold of $25,000, so that projects are included such as “remodeling a bathroom.”

Somehow, the union targets for Project Labor Agreements have evolved from airports, reservoirs, and dams to dinky bathroom remodels meant to ensure government compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They’ve gone from the Hoover Dam to the too-low toilet bowl.

Unions can argue it would not be in the public interest if students were forced to relieve themselves behind the palm trees in the school’s central courtyard or smoke their cigarettes behind the gym because union-instigated work stoppages delayed a bathroom remodelling job. This is what could happen if a Project Labor Agreement was not in place to address labor strife, a dearth of skilled labor, worker grievances, union-versus-management disharmony, or worksite instability in the bathroom.

Obviously the traditional arguments for Project Labor Agreements have changed quite a bit since the decisive court cases of the 1990s.

Project Labor Agreements are justified by Section 8(e) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Consider that Section 1 of the NLRA states findings that the law was enacted to reduce “strikes and other forms of industrial strife or unrest” and to “eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce.”

Unimpeded bathroom remodels may eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of something, but is this really the intent of the National Labor Relations Act?

Perhaps it’s time to reopen the legal challenges to Project Labor Agreements now that they’re used for bathroom remodels and – as listed in Appendix B of the 2000 Orange County Project Labor Agreement – “Bird/Weed/Dust Control.”