Friday, November 9, 2001

Union-only work rules known as Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) got a shot in the arm this week from a federal judge who ruled against a Bush administration executive order that would have given equal time to non-union workers building the new Wilson Bridge. PLAs forbid non-union labor and require even those workers not affiliated with a union to abide by union rules relating to pay and other issues. They are backed by the unions and, most notably in this particular instance, Maryland’s Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The Bush administration had sided with Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore, who fought for a right-to-work approach that he argued would save time and money as well as increase the efficiency of the Wilson Bridge project.

The ruling on Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Emmett G. Sullivan put the kibosh on all of that, effectively mandating that all contractors on both sides of the Potomac abide by union-approved work rules and pay scales. Judge Sullivan, in his lengthy opinion, wrote that the Bush executive order vitiating the PLAs “. . removed an economic weapon from labor organizations, federal agencies, and the recipients of federal funding.” In the judge’s view, it thereby violated the New Deal-era National Labor Relations Act an ossified piece of semi-socialist legislation that fears free competition as much as Dracula recoils from garlic.

Mr. Gilmore fought the good fight on this one, and President Bush admirably backed him up. Unfortunately, Judge Sullivan disagreed with both men, and his ruling will have a weighty effect upon the $2.4 billion Wilson Bridge Project. If past union-only experience is prologue, actually getting the new bridge built will now take longer and cost more than currently expected. By limiting choice and throttling competition, the PLAs grant union labor a monopoly, and monopolies are rarely among the more efficiently run enterprises.

The PLA lawsuit was backed not merely by the unions and Mr. Glendening, but a veritable roster of usual suspects, including the left-leaning Sierra Club, National Economic Development and Law Center and the states of New York and Massachusetts. This lineup also includes the city of Richmond, which became a party to the suit in order to force the use of PLAs on urban renewal projects receiving federal monies. No word as yet from the Bush administration regarding a possible appeal of Judge Sullivan’s ruling.

Meanwhile, getting actual work started on the bridge is becoming more critical with each passing month. Almost a quarter-million vehicles traverse the Potomac at the site of the current, highly dilapidated Wilson Bridge. Rigid, union-only work rules are only likely to bungle things even more than they already are.

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