WAUKESHA – State Rep. Rob Hutton is introducing a bill to prevent local governments from requiring contractors who bid on public construction projects to have project labor agreements, or PLAs, with local labor unions.
“We’re basically eliminating the ability for a municipality to require that a contractor enter into a project labor agreement for collective bargaining around labor and labor wages,” the Brookfield Republican said in an interview Thursday.
“We don’t want government either to prohibit or require a project labor agreement,” Hutton added.
PLAs are agreements between owners of construction firms and construction unions. Under current state law, firms bidding to work on a public construction project can be required by municipalities and school districts to enter into collective bargaining with the unions, hire workers through union hiring halls, and pay union wages and benefits. This applies to contractors whether they normally use a unionized workforce or not.
“We want to leave that up to the contractor themselves that if they deem it to their benefit to, as a part of their bid, to enter into a project labor agreement in order to accommodate the labor for that project.” Hutton said.
“Conversely, if a contractor says they have no interest in entering into a project labor agreement as a part of the process of bidding on the construction of a project, then that’s perfectly fine as well. We want to leave it in the hands of that individual firm as to how they address their labor resources for that project.”
The co-author of the bill, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, said in a statement Thursday that qualified contractors normally are shut out of the bid process when PLAs are required.
“The government should not be in the business of choosing winners and losers, particularly at the expense of taxpayers,” Vukmir stated. “Government-mandated project labor agreements obstruct open, impartial and competitive bidding on construction projects.”
Reforming PLAs could be one way for the Legislature to control costs on road construction. Hutton and Vukmir said the current law is inflating public construction costs. “Studies have shown that project labor agreements can increase the cost of projects by as much as 18% by reducing the number of eligible contractors,” their joint statement claimed.
Hutton explained why they’re supporting the limits on PLAs now.
“I think we’re at a time when the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin are asking us to be very smart with our taxpayer dollars,” Hutton said. “And if we’re looking at, in this case road projects, I think prior to having any discussion whatsoever about if there is a need to raise revenue, I think most taxpayers and businesses in our state are asking us to be as efficient and effective as possible within our government entities.”
He added that lawmakers should work to see how lean the government can become “before we come back and ask the taxpayers for one more penny out of their pocket to fill the gap.”
Lawmakers have their work cut out for them, especially when it comes to the transportation budget’s $1 billion shortfall. In a constituent newsletter sent on Friday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced that he is in favor of repealing Wisconsin’s prevailing wage proposal. “A full prevailing wage repeal should be considered as part of a comprehensive transportation funding package,” the newsletter said.
Just last month, Vos said in a memo that a complete repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law would save only an average of 1 percent on project costs. The prevailing wage law requires state road contractors to pay wages which are similar to the union scale normally paid to workers on similar private projects in an area. A partial repeal of the law for local road projects takes effect on Jan. 1, 2017.
The Wisconsin AFL-CIO could not be reached for comment on Hutton’s proposal. However, the national AFL-CIO defended PLAs in a blog post in 2013. “PLAs clearly improve the working conditions, salaries and benefits of both union and non-union workers, prevent disruptive work stoppages and bring construction projects in on time and under budget,” the blog post said.
A press release from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers praised a PLA recently signed by the Milwaukee Bucks for the construction of their new arena. “Study after study shows that projects built under PLAs are more likely to be completed on time, within budget and with the highest level of quality construction,” the release said.
Hutton disagreed with the unions’ praise for PLAs.
“There is plenty of examples from around the country where project labor agreements have been in place for projects that haven’t necessarily resulted in the quality of work or the timeliness of that work,” he said. “So there isn’t anything synonymous with a PLA and the quality of work or the quality of the project itself.”
He added that the lack of a PLA also doesn’t mean “the quality of the workforce is subpar,” or that the work itself fails to live up to expectations.
Hutton is optimistic that his colleagues in the Legislature will support the bill.
“So far we’ve got pretty good response and a lot of encouragement from fellow legislators,” he said. “I’ve had discussions with leadership in general that have been very positive and supportive of the legislation.”
About twenty-one other states have enacted legislation to significantly reform or completely eliminate government imposed PLA laws.