Thursday, February 1, 2001

The Bush administration has prepared an executive order that would prohibit labor agreements in which unions win concessions in exchange for no-strike clauses in their contracts on federally funded projects.
The agreements, known as project labor agreements (PLAs), are widely supported by unions but disliked among nonunion employers. President Bush has not yet issued the executive order but is expected to do so soon.
In the Washington area, the most immediate effect would involve construction on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Maryland state officials have agreed to a PLA with 15 labor unions. The executive order, however, might override the union contract, which the Federal Highway Administration is reviewing.
A draft copy of the executive order obtained by The Times prohibits government contracts from requiring or forbidding anyone associated with a project to “enter into or adhere to agreements with one or more labor organizations on the same or other related construction projects.” It also prohibits discrimination against anyone who either signs or refuses to sign the agreements.
Among the purposes of the order, according to the draft copy, are to “reduce construction costs to the taxpayers” and “expand job opportunities, especially for small and disadvantaged businesses.”
The draft copy was circulated among federal agencies for comment and was due back to the White House by the beginning of this week, according to a labor union official.
Typical concessions in project labor agreements involve wages, benefits and work rules. Private-sector projects that receive no federal funds would not be affected by the executive order.
Supporters of the agreements say they allow different unions or groups of workers to be joined under a single labor contract. Employers typically agree to a no-lockout provision if a dispute arises with the workers.
Critics say the project labor agreements discriminate against nonunion employers and their workers.
“They are either forcing employees to join unions or to pay into union benefit funds for which they can expect no return,” said Stan Greer, spokesman for the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Committee. “All project labor agreements mandate preferential treatment for unionized businesses and therefore their employees. We don’t believe the federal government, or any government, should discriminate against employees on the basis of union status.”
The Bush administration’s draft executive order hinted that the agreements give unions too much power to influence wages and other employment issues on federal projects. The order said that prohibiting the agreements would “promote and ensure open competition on federal and federally funded or assisted construction projects.”
Edward Sullivan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, said, “Without these agreements, we can’t assure that jobs are kept at home or that women and minorities are given equal opportunities to bid and work.”
Mr. Sullivan pledged to fight any attempts by the Bush administration to limit project labor agreements.
“If this order is issued, we’re going to end up right back where President Bush says he doesn’t want to go the federal courts,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said a danger of the executive order was delay on the construction of Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
“Any delay is a slap in the face to the 190,000 commuters who cross that bridge every day and are crying out for relief from one of the worst bottlenecks on the East Coast,” Mr. Cahalan said.
He also cautioned against assuming the draft copy is the same as a finalized executive order. “The fact is there is no executive order as of today,” Mr. Cahalan said. “We’re going to keep our eyes on the goal, which is to build this bridge on time.”
The draft copy is essentially the same as an executive order President Bush’s father issued in 1992. President Clinton rescinded it in early 1993.
There is a possibility under the draft rule that the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project labor agreement could fall under an exception to the executive order. Administrators of government agencies would be authorized to exempt a project “if the agency finds that special circumstances require an exemption in order to avert an imminent threat to public health or safety or to serve the national security,” the draft copy says.
At a downtown press briefing yesterday, incoming United Steelworkers of America President Leo Gerard, said, “Obviously I would take a very negative view toward any executive order that would weaken any union.”
He said government action that diminishes the strength of unions hurts the entire country. “In the long run, they are weakening our democracy,” Mr. Gerard said.

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