Hard hats and blue jeans outnumbered suits and ties in the Legislative Office Building Monday as workers from the state’s organized building trades massed to rally behind a practice known as Project Labor Agreements.
The Labor and Public Employees Committee heard testimony from representatives of the state’s organized construction trade and the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a contractor trade group.
PLAs, also known as community workforce agreements, are contracts entered into for construction projects.
Labor Commissioner Glenn Marshall told the committee that PLAs have “been used in the construction industry for over 60 years to achieve uniform work standards, better safety and efficiency, and timely completion of complex projects dating back to the 1930s.”
Union officials told the committee that PLAs ensure that building contracts employ local labor, as opposed to out-of-state workers on Connecticut construction sites.
A PLA is typically negotiated by the client (usually a municipality) and a union consortium led by the Connecticut Building Trades before a project is put out to bid.
The existence of PLAs, an issue that doesn’t come before the legislature very often, has come up in the wake of a January Connecticut Supreme Court decision. The decision gave standing to Electrical Contractors, Inc. (ECI), a nonunion Hartford company, that sued the Hartford Board of Education after winning a bid, but declining to sign a PLA for two school construction projects.
The Superior Court that first heard the trial decided that ECI did not have standing to bring the lawsuit, but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court. It’s now back in trial court.
While the actual case may not be decided for years, the ruling on ECI’s standing creates the opportunity for other contractors to sue on account of PLAs.
There is currently no pending legislation that would ban the use of PLAs in Connecticut, though several states have either banned them or restricted them, according to ABC. Rumors have been circling that similar legislation may be proposed soon in Connecticut, though committee co-chair Rep. Bruce Zalaski D-Southington said he hadn’t heard of one yet.
The centerpiece of the testimony in support of PLAs was a presentation by Jeremy Zeedyk, a sheetmetal worker from Local 40 and a US Navy veteran. Zeedyk cited a number of studies that claimed that PLAs do not increase the cost of building contracts to taxpayers. He also showed figures and data from the Department of Labor comparing the hours logged on PLA versus non-PLA job sites, showing that PLA job sites hire more local workers.
Rep. Ernest Hewitt D-New London, a former welder himself, said that he saw lot of Massachusetts plates at construction sites around New London, and asked Zeedyk for clarification on how PLAs ensure local labor is used on job sites.
Zeedyk explained that, though PLAs can not legally stop out of state contractors from bidding, they can mandate that the workforce be hired from local union halls.
Critics of PLAs, represented Monday primarily by contractors, contend that PLAs limit the bidding process and amount to union “monopoly.”
Lelah Campo, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said that the unions were attempting to “bypass the due process of the courts,” which have “decided that PLAs need another look.”
“[Non-union] contractors deserve their day in court,” she said.
Campo even went as far as to rhetorically ask if PLAs are “designed to make sure that minorities stay as labor and don’t get equal opportunity to own construction companies.”
Her question was provoked by a letter from Rufus Wells, executive director of the Minority Construction Council (MCC). In the letter addressed to Campo, Wells writes that 90 percent of the membership of MCC is non-union, and that the PLA system muscles these contractors out of bids. The letter also provides anecdotal evidence of union intimidation of minority contractors on a Hartford job site.
The letter doesn’t name the union involved or the specific job site, but alleges that union workers buried a minority non-union worker’s tools in a cement wall because he was “working too fast.”
Wells could not be reached for comment Monday and the contact number listed for the Minority Construction Council was not active.
David Roche, president of the Connecticut Building Trades, said that he was “surprised” by the claim of racial discrimination, calling it “completely untrue.”
“If you look at the Hartford PLAs, there is actually set-asides for minority contractors, union or non-union,” he said.