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Comstock Opposes PLAs on the Silver Line

Political fight over project labor agreements could hold up next phase of Metro's extension to Dulles International Airport.

Metro's Silver Line extension to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County now hinges on a political fight over something called a project labor agreement.

Because the Silver line is key to the redevelopment of Tysons Corner, McLean Patch asked Dranesville Supervisor John Foust (D) and Del. Barbara Comstock (R-McLean Great Falls, Loudoun) to explain to readers the five things they need to know about the Dulles PLA. Comstock's response follows. . 

The Metropolitan Washington Airpots Authority board is scheduled to vote today on the PLA issue.

Virginia Del. Barbara Comstock, R-34.

1. Project Labor Agreements can be voluntary or mandatory.  Phase 1 of Dulles Rail had a voluntary PLA but as the MWAA Board prepared for Phase 2, a mandatory PLA was pushed by a union Vice President, Dennis Martire, who is a Tim Kaine appointee of MWAA. As The Washington Post editorialized last year, "The airports board was pushed to adopt the mandatory 'project labor agreement'  by board member Dennis Martire, who, in his day job, is a senior official in the Laborers' International Union of North America, which represents hundreds of thousands of construction workers. Mr. Martire had an obvious conflict of interest, as his union would be a direct and major beneficiary from a labor deal." A recent Department of Transportation Inspector General report also chided one member of the MWAA Board (known to be Martire) for being "instrumental in drafting the materials that were up for vote [a PLA preference measure that substituted the original PLA mandate pushed by Martire], and had a clear interest in the outcome of the vote because of his relationship with organizations [the LIUNA union] that would potentially benefit from the proposal passing."

2. H.B. 33, my legislation passed this year dealing with PLAs simply requires neutrality on all government contracting — a level playing field for both union and non-union workers. Fair and open competition is the best deal for our taxpayers and, in turn, to keep the toll prices down. Additionally, 97 percent of Virginia workers are non-union and we in Virginia want to make sure our workers have a fair shot at these jobs and that keeps those tax revenues here in Virginia. Under my bill, a union-mandated PLA cannot be forced on a project nor can only be forbidden if a company voluntarily chooses to do so. Those pushing for union mandates frequently blur the distinctions between voluntary and mandatory and try to allege that a PLA preference is somehow different from a mandate, however a PLA preference clearly is not a level playing field and also violates the law. It would be the equivalent of saying men and women could compete "equally" but men get a 10-point preference. Obviously, that would not be fair and open competition, nor would it be a level playing field.  Not all project labor agreements are one in the same. Voluntary PLAs are executed by the general contractor such as the one DTP used on Phase 1 of the Silver Line, which exempted non-union subcontractors. The voluntary PLA on Phase 1 was not mandatory. In contrast, a government-mandated PLA is a multi-employer, multi-union, pre-hire contract that is required by the procurement arm or owner of the project. A PLA preference, such as MWAA has proposed for Phase 2 of the Silver Line, gives a preference to those bidders, in this case 10 percent scoring advantage, to those firms who agree to use a PLA. There is little chance that a contractor that does not want to use a PLA can overcome the 10 percent disadvantage.

3. PLAs typically require non-union companies to obtain their workers from union hiring halls. In effect, this eliminates competition from non-union contractors and their employees — qualified and skilled craft professionals who compose 97.4 percent of the Virginia private construction work force. Occasionally PLAs allow a non-union firm to use a limited portion of their own workforce, but they must send those workers to the union hiring hall and pay into union health, welfare and trust funds even though these companies have their own benefits plans and their non-union employees are not eligible to claim the benefits. Non-union firms must obtain apprentices exclusively from union apprenticeship programs. This means craft professionals enrolled in federal and state-approved apprenticeship programs other than those offered by the union are excluded from working on PLA projects.

4. There is broad bipartisan opposition to PLA mandates or PLA preferences in Virginia. The attempts to mandate PLAs on Phase 2 of the Dulles Rail Project has generated broad bipartisan opposition which includes eight of the 11 members of our congressional delegation including Congressman Frank Wolf and Majority Leader Eric Cantor; the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors; members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; the Virginia Chamber of Commerce; the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce; the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce; the Purcellville Business and Professional Association; a coalition of 13 of Northern Virginia's leading business groups and associations; the Virginia Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors; Women Construction Owners and Executives; and many of our local, state and elected officials. Recently former Governors Chuck Robb, Linwood Holton and Gerald Baliles, as well as former Senator John Warner wrote a letter to MWAA asking them to remove the PLA preference. 

5. A reduction of two or three bidders because of MWAA's PLA mandate or preference could increase costs by hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on the final Phase 2 construction costs and put incredible burdens on our state and local budgets. As The Washington Post noted last year, "There is serious debate about whether a labor pact would drive up expenses. The airports authority says a similar pact for the project's first phase, under construction from Falls Church to Reston, has helped contain costs and enhance efficiency by ensuring a steady supply of workers and avoiding labor trouble. But that agreement was adopted voluntarily by the contractor. There are concerns that a mandatory labor agreement for the second phase could dampen competition and drive up costs by discouraging bids from some large contractors, and by imposing cumbersome union rules." The Silver Line PLA controversy is not the first time that there have been attempts to force PLAs on Virginia businesses and workers. About a decade ago there was a PLA controversy about the Wilson Bridge when the project was temporarily subjected to a union-favoring PLA requirement by former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening in 2000. After the PLA was imposed, only one bidder responded to the RFP for the bridge superstructure contract, at a bid price more than $370 million above the state's engineering estimates — a 78 percent cost overrun. Eventually, the Wilson Bridge contract was broken up and rebid into three smaller contracts free from mandated PLAs. Multiple bids were then received and the winning bids came in significantly below the engineering estimates and resulted in on-time and on-budget construction by both union and merit shop firms. Similarly opening Phase 2 of the Silver Line to real fair and open competition free from government-mandated PLAs can reduce costs.  Of course the most notorious PLA project was the "Big Dig" in Boston which had cost overruns in the millions as well as constant delays. 

Ivy Main June 06, 2012 at 12:41 PM
It's all about union-bashing for Delegate Comstock. How about focusing instead on what will get rail to Dulles on time and on budget? If that can be done better with a PLA than without one, then let's skip the political rhetoric and get the job started.
HardHatMommy June 06, 2012 at 12:49 PM
Thanks Delegate Comstock. The 97% of Virginia construction workers hurt by this PLA scam (which is nothing like the PLA on Phase 1 that exempted us) have so much to lose. We should be able to have a fair chance to bid the Dulles Rail job regardless of whether we are union or non-union. We're paying taxes and tolls to pay for this. Why are we being discriminated against? And why isn't the community standing up and yelling and screaming on our behalf? We build Virginia's monuments, universities, grade schools, hospitals, high rises and we do it every day without PLA nonsense. With a PLA, the jobs go union and we get shut out. Without the PLA, both unions and non-union firms will have a piece of the work. The PLA on Dulles Rail must go.
Louise Epstein June 06, 2012 at 12:59 PM
Wikipedia has an article on PLAs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Labor_Agreement
Ted Brogan June 06, 2012 at 02:38 PM
This is a terrific and 100 percent accurate piece by Del. Comstock. Thank you for sticking up for the rights of Virginia's nonunion construction workers and the interest of taxpayers. More competition will save this project millions. Being pro-competition is not anti-union. Today even MWAA came to their senses and removed their discriminatory and costly PLA preference policy by an 11-1 margin. Now let's get Phase 2 of the Silver Line built on-time, on-budget and in a safe manner.

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