- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and Virginia have reached a tentative agreement on a labor pact that had threatened to quash a deal in which the state would contribute additional money to the Dulles Metrorail project.

Any project labor agreement on the second phase of the project cannot force job applicants to join a union as a condition of employment, and nonunion contractors and subcontractors cannot be discriminated against when seeking work, under language approved Wednesday by the agency’s board of directors.

Proponents of such labor agreements, which are prehiring arrangements in which contractors and labor groups set the terms of employment for a particular project, say they prevent cost overruns by supplying a steady supply of union labor. However, critics argue that the agreements can drive up costs by discouraging bids from nonunion contractors.

In addition to approving the agreement, the agency Wednesday also signed off on a memorandum of agreement for Phase 2 — 11.6-miles of rail from Wiehle Avenue in Reston through Washington Dulles International Airport — that is expected to save about $1 billion on the project, now estimated at $2.8 billion.

Still, union-friendly labor agreements area thorny issue in states such as Virginia that have right-to-work laws, under which workers cannot be required to join a union as a condition of employment.

Work continues on a sky-light roof for the entrance to the Wiehle Avenue Metrorail Station in Reston, the end of the line for Phase 1 of the Silver Line extension to Washington Dulles International Airport. A pact between the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and Virginia for Phase 2 allows nonunion workers to be hired for the project. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The Washington Times)
Work continues on a sky-light roof for the entrance to the Wiehle ... more >

“This agreement ensures that Virginia’s right-to-work laws will apply to every aspect of Phase 2,” said Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton. “It also will ensure that no one — contractors or subcontractors — will be forced to take on unions. It will also subject [Phase 2] to Virginia law. So we think it’s a major step forward from Phase 1.”

Phase 1 of the Silver Line — an 11.5-mile stretch from East Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue in Reston that is expected to be finished in late 2013 — had a labor agreement.

But Dulles Transit Partners, the prime contractor on the project, voluntarily adopted one after winning the contract. In addition, the agreement exempted nonunion subcontractors from its requirements.

A resolution by the agency’s board earlier this year calling for the use of a labor agreement on Phase 2 cited a 2009 executive order from President Obama, a Democrat, encouraging their use on projects built with federal support of more than $25 million.

It also stated that Dulles Transit Partners has recommended a labor agreement “much like the one employed in Phase 1” be used in Phase 2.

The Phase 1 agreement did not require union membership as a condition of working on the project, but in general it does require the lead contractor to seek workers from union halls first before looking elsewhere, said George Morschauser, the project executive director for Dulles Transit Partners. Mr. Morschauser said DTP is performing about 65 percent of the work on Phase 1.

“In order to amass that type of labor force, we thought the local unions had the best opportunity to provide the best-trained workers,” he said, adding that the agreement has worked quite well for the first leg.

Still, about 60 percent of the value of contracts awarded by Dulles Transit Partners on Phase 1 went to non-union subcontractors.

As with Mr. Obama’s directive, the issue has fallen largely along party lines with recent presidents.

In 2001, President George W. Bush, a Republican, issued an executive order barring any construction project that received federal funds from imposing the agreements.

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