- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Virginia House and Senate on Tuesday voted to ban mandatory project labor agreements on state-funded construction projects, a move proponents argue will help protect the state’s right-to-work laws and create a level playing field in contract bidding.

The Republican-led House approved its version of the bill on a 69-27 vote, and the Senate deadlocked on the measure 20-20.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, cast the tiebreaking vote in favor of the legislation — his first tiebreaking vote on legislation this session. He also cast a tiebreaking vote to organize the Senate last month.

“Public dollars should not be diverted to projects involving Project Labor Agreements that favor union shops over merit shops,” Mr. Bolling said in a statement. “This critical legislation protects our right-to-work law and continues to promote a pro-business environment.”

Opponents argued the measure was an unnecessary red herring, since state law already prohibits union membership as a prerequisite for securing a job.

Delegate David L. Englin, Alexandria Democrat, questioned what the legislation approved Tuesday would actually do.

“It’s preventing the commonwealth from ever using this tool to protect taxpayer interests,” he said. “I’m simply concerned that we not tie the commonwealth’s hand and take away what can be, in some cases, a valuable tool.”

The vote comes amid a backlash against unionized labor in the Midwest, once an unquestioned bastion of union workforce authority and influence. Indiana is poised to become the first right-to-work state — where union membership cannot be a prerequisite for someone seeking a job — in more than 10 years. The state House approved the measure last week that the Senate is expected to approve as soon as Wednesday, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has said he would sign the measure into law.

Ohio and Wisconsin have both passed legislation in recent years to sharply curb the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector employees, but those efforts prompted a considerable backlash in response. Ohio voters overturned that state’s law in a ballot referendum last November, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker is facing a recall effort in Wisconsin.

The debate over the agreements, 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 voted to include a mandatory PLA in the procurement documents for Phase 2 of the 23-mile project to extend Metro rail service to Washington Dulles International Airport.

A PLA had been used on Phase 1, but was voluntarily adopted by Dulles Transit Partners, the prime contractor, after winning the bid.

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

An agreement between the airports authority and Virginia ensures that the state’s right-to-work laws will apply to every aspect of Phase 2 of the project, ensures that contractors and subcontractors will not be forced to take on unions, and subjects Phase 2 to state law.

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, and Sen. Richard H. Black, Loudoun Republican, have introduced bills that go farther, prohibiting state funds from being used on Phase 2 if a project labor agreement is used, among other things.

The state has conditionally agreed to provide $150 million in additional funds for Phase 2, which the General Assembly must approve.