The regional authority overseeing the $6 billion Dulles rail project dealt a blow to union labor on Wednesday — a day after voters in Wisconsin and California did much the same.
The authority’s move to quash union-friendly language for a crucial component of one of the largest public works projects in the country comes on the heels of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s historic win in that state’s first-ever recall election — a vote triggered by his move to sharply curb the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions.
Meanwhile, voters in both San Jose and San Diego approved ballot initiatives that scale back retirement benefits for public workers. The union representing city employees in San Diego unsuccessfully fought to keep that city’s measure off the California primary ballot.
The Dulles rail development, while more nuanced, represents a similar example of pushback against unions.
The issue divided members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) board largely on ideological lines between those who support and oppose requiring project labor agreements (PLAs) — pre-project collective bargaining pacts made between contractors and unions that outline conditions and wages for workers.
Virginia, where the rail-line construction will take place, is a right-to-work state, meaning that union membership cannot be required as a condition for employment.
But the MWAA board, which in April 2011 voted to require the lead contractor on phase two to use a PLA, also represents the interests of Maryland, the District and the federal government. Maryland and the District are overwhelmingly Democratic and generally considered friendly to labor, while President Obama issued an executive order in 2009 encouraging the use of PLAs on high-dollar federal construction projects.
The contractor for the first phase of the rail project employed a PLA that was voluntarily adopted after the bid was won in June 2007, under the administration of former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat.
Supporters of the PLA said the agreement helped ensure a safe, steady supply of capable workers on Phase 1 of the 23-mile line.
When the issue of a PLA for the second phase was introduced last year, the board engaged in countless debates with officials in Virginia, where Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, threatened to withhold funding for the project if the language was kept.
The airports authority board eventually watered down the PLA requirement on phase two to a preference, stating that contractors bidding on the project would receive a 10 percent scoring bonus if they agreed to use a labor agreement.
After more than a year of haggling during which Virginia’s funding for the project was uncertain, Mr. McDonnell wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week saying that if the MWAA board voted to remove the PLA language entirely, the state would provide a pledged $150 million next year “without any further conditions.”
The move helped prompt the MWAA board to vote 11-1 on Wednesday to abandon the PLA preference.
“The state had changed their positions a couple times. We did get some mixed signals back and forth, and it was very difficult,” said Vice Chairman Thomas M. Davis III, an appointee of Mr. McDonnell and a former GOP congressman from Virginia, who cautioned against pointing fingers.
Still, board member Robert Clarke Brown, who cast the lone dissenting vote, was skeptical about Virginia’s commitment.
“To have a statement from the governor not even made to us that the money will be there next year … I don’t think we can be relying on that,” he said.
The letter satisfied MWAA board Chairman Michael A. Curto, though, who said after the vote that the agreement was “crystal clear,” though he also made clear that he was quite supportive of the PLA.
Board member Dennis L. Martire, vice president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), voted to drop the language, but still said it was offensive that the working conditions could be changed on the second leg “because of politics.”
“It’s a political issue to begin with,” Mr. Davis said. “We have never had a mandatory PLA in Virginia in our history. I said at the time, I don’t think everyone knows what they’re doing.”
Virginia laws passed during the recently completed General Assembly session leave decisions on PLAs to contractors, prohibiting the banning or requiring of the agreements, along with bonuses or preferences, on projects funded by the state.
Proponents say the agreement keeps costs down. But opponents say the agreement discriminates against the 97 percent of Virginia construction workers who are nonunion and could drive up costs by scaring off potential bidders wary of adopting a PLA.
The first phase of the project, which will run from East Falls Church through Tysons Corner to Wiehle Avenue in Reston, is slated to be finished in 2013.
Loudoun County has until July 4 to decide whether to opt out of providing funding for phase two, which would run through Dulles airport and into the county. Mr. Curto said Wednesday that if Loudoun opts out, it would delay the project by up to two years. If everything moves as planned, phase two could be open for riders by 2018.