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Here’s How to Fill those Construction Jobs

October 4, 2015

As the economy slowly strengthens, construction contractors are increasingly sounding the alarm of a worker shortage. But what’s really in short supply are common-sense policies that value those who work with their hands to build our country.

One of the best tools to help contractors build a workforce has been politicized and come under sustained attack. The project labor agreement, or PLA, has been successfully used for generations on major projects from the Hoover Dam to the new World Trade Center. It helped make construction of the new $400 million PNC Tower in Pittsburgh a successful project, coming in on budget with a solid safety record, as well as school projects, such as the $80 million Penn Hills High School.

Used for generations, these collectively bargained arrangements specify wages, benefits, working conditions, quality standards, training opportunities and other aspects of a construction project that all the contractors and construction trades must agree to.

Project labor agreements save money by ensuring quality work. They minimize deaths and injuries by requiring safe working conditions — also a money saver. Their provisions are built into the bidding process so that unscrupulous contractors cannot underbid competitors by skimping on safety or by driving down wages and benefits in a race to the bottom. Training and apprenticeship provisions also attract more young people into construction trades.

The bottom line: Project labor agreements value the work that men and women do with their hands and put them on a career path that serves the industry.

So why are they not more widely used, particularly given the consternation about a worker shortage?

Enter the Associated Builders and Contractors, which has been engaging in a multi-year campaign to dismantle project labor agreements in cities, counties and states across the country. In Pennsylvania, the agreements come under perennial attack in the state General Assembly and at the county level, as in Westmoreland County.

Associated Builders and Contractors, with ties to the conservative Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch-funded effort that promotes the spread of right-wing state laws, even brags about it on its website. In part due to their lobbying efforts, these workforce-building agreements have been banned in several states, bringing to 23 those that now prohibit or limit them.

Much of the campaign against project labor agreements is based on distortions or outright falsehoods. For example, a well-worn talking point often repeated by politicians is that project labor agreements prohibit nonunion contractors. That is false, although it is more likely that union contractors have the certified apprentice-training projects and stronger safety programs that the agreements usually require.

The stories of how PLAs reward workers and help contractors can be found every day in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. The first phase of the metro Silver Line extension linking Washington, D.C., to Dulles airport was completed with a PLA. There were no serious injuries and the project was finished on budget and on time. After a political squabble, the second phase is underway without a PLA and is delayed and severely over budget.

Then there’s the Bechtel project labor agreement on the Shell clean-fuels project in Gilberton, Pa., where not a single worker suffered an injury serious enough to merit a lost workday even after 2 million work hours. That compares to a local average of more than 60 lost workdays after an equivalent number of work hours.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California documented savings of as much as $35 million in workers’ compensation premiums because of the superior training and safety provisions of a project labor agreement.

Not having enough workers in the construction industry is a serious issue, which can choke a key economic sector responsible for as much as 5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. But the problem is more than a worker shortage. It’s a common-sense shortage among politicians too eager to curry favor with strong-arm lobbyists.

The men and women who go to work each day to build the great projects that fuel our nation and economy face harsh and dangerous conditions due to the nature of the work. It’s time we pushed back against politicizing the project labor agreements that show respect and value for what construction workers do. And that’s the cure for a worker shortage, too.

Dennis Martire, a Pittsburgh native, is vice president and mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, representing more than 40,000 workers, predominantly in the construction industry.

Read Pittsburgh Post Gazette Here.