Va. House advances ban on mandatory labor agreements

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The Virginia House of Delegates on Monday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would prohibit mandatory labor agreements on state-funded construction projects that opponents argue favor union workers and can lead to ballooning costs.

The debate over so-called project labor agreements (PLAs), prehiring arrangements in which contractors and labor groups set the terms of employment for a particular project, came to a head when the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) voted to include a mandatory PLA in the procurement documents for Phase 2 of the 23-mile Dulles Metrorail Project. An agreement had been used on Phase 1 but was voluntarily adopted by Dulles Transit Partners, the prime contractor, after wining the bid.

The thorny debate in Virginia, a right-to-work state, spilled over onto the House floor Monday, with proponents of the bill arguing that it simply creates a level playing field by not favoring or discriminating against union or non-union workers.

“This bill simply requires neutrality in state government contacting,” said Delegate Barbara J. Comstock, Fairfax Republican, one of the measure’s sponsors. “Everybody will be competing on a level playing field.”

The PLA issue was a key sticking point in whether Virginia was to agree to pony up additional money for the 11.5-mile second leg of the $6 billion Dulles rail project. The state and MWAA have come to an agreement that the commonwealth’s right-to-work laws, which say that people cannot be forced to join a union in order to secure work, will apply to Phase 2 of the project and that neither contractors nor subcontractors will be required to take on unions. The state has conditionally agreed to put up an additional $150 million for the project, which the General Assembly must approve.

Ms. Comstock pointed to Boston’s notorious “Big Dig” project, which employed a PLA and was beset by terrible delays and cost overruns, the price tag eventually ballooning from $2 billion to $14 billion. She also noted that contractors eyeing a bid on Phase 2 of Dulles rail have expressed misgivings about bidding if a mandatory PLA is part of the agreement.

But Vivian E. Watts, Fairfax Democrat, pointed to cost overruns and four fatalities during the construction of the “Mixing Bowl” project in Northern Fairfax — a project not subject to a PLA.

“To make the statements that we need to fight PLAs because somehow it’s a matter of safety or somehow its a matter of controlling costs is simply not borne out by the record,” she said. “It is not a matter, nor can it be a matter in Virginia, of any sort of forced unionism  as to who actually does the work.”

Delegate Timothy D. Hugo Fairfax Republican and another sponsor of the bill, called Phase 2 of the project “tenuous at best.” He noted that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had to broker a cost-cutting deal on the project between various stakeholders and argued that an additional burden like a required labor agreement would effectively kill it.

“If we have a mandatory PLA on here,” he said, “the project will not go forward.”

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