Americans are in strong bipartisan agreement that our nation’s roads, bridges, schools and water, energy and transportation systems are in urgent need of public and private investment in order to accelerate America’s strong economic comeback and keep our country competitive in a global economy.
As America’s infrastructure faces an estimated $2.6 trillion investment gap by 2029, the Biden administration and Congress are preparing to move a multitrillion dollar infrastructure bill. That’s good news for the U.S. economy and means new jobs for the construction industry, which faces a 9.6% unemployment rate due to the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, taxpayers must hold lawmakers accountable for delivering the most efficient and cost-effective investment in quality infrastructure projects designed to last.
Likewise, taxpayers should be concerned about the expansion of existing controversial policies on federal and federally assisted construction projects that needlessly increase costs to taxpayers, unfairly limit competition by some of America’s best contractors and ultimately exclude almost nine out of 10 of the construction industry’s local workforce from middle-class jobs and benefits resulting from government investment in infrastructure.
Specifically, voters should be concerned by signals from the Biden administration and some in Congress that they plan to expand policies encouraging and mandating project labor agreements (PLAs) on federal and federally assisted construction projects.
When mandated by governments, PLAs interfere with unionized contractors existing collective bargaining agreements and discourage small, women, veteran, minority and other qualified nonunion contractors — which employ 87.3% of America’s construction industry — from competing to build projects funded by taxpayer dollars.
ABC members are the contractors creating the places where we live, learn, work, play, worship and heal — projects like converting a convention center to a temporary hospital with 450 beds — building the infrastructure America needs while setting the standard in safety, quality and innovation.
Government-mandated PLAs force experienced contractors to follow inefficient union work rules and hire most or all craft professionals on a jobsite from specified union hiring halls and union apprenticeship programs instead of journey workers and apprentices already employed by their company.
Some PLAs permit a restricted number of nonunion workers on a PLA jobsite, but they must join a union and/or pay union dues and contribute to union benefits programs they will never be able to access unless they join a union, resulting in an estimated 20% hit to their paychecks. That limits the pool of bidders, since nonunion contractors don’t want to abandon their existing employees and quality-control practices — key components of a safe and productive workplace — for unfamiliar work rules and labor from union halls.
A January 2020 study by the Beacon Hill Institute found that government-mandated PLAs raised the final construction costs of building Connecticut schools by almost 20% compared to non-PLA school construction. Additional studies on the effect of government-mandated PLAs on school construction in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Ohio found that PLAs increase the cost of construction by between 12% and 18%. In addition, recent government-mandated PLAs on federal and federally assisted projects have resulted in litigation, reduced competition, increased costs, needless delays and poor local hiring outcomes.
America simply cannot afford such waste and inefficiency with so many infrastructure and funding needs.
For these reasons, a total of 25 states outlaw government-mandated PLAs on public works projects, instead enacting more efficient and effective policies promoting fair and open competition on public works construction projects so hardworking taxpayers can get the highest quality construction project at the best possible price.
Last week, Sen. Todd Young, Indiana Republican, and Rep. Ted Budd, North Carolina Republican, introduced a broadly-supported bill, the Fair and Open Competition Act (S. 403/H.R. 1284), that would apply this commonsense policy to federal and federally assisted construction projects.
As America’s infrastructure may see its first major investment of taxpayer dollars and overhaul in decades, inclusive, win-win state and federal fair and open competition policies will ultimately result in savings to taxpayers and more opportunities for all qualified small businesses, minorities, veterans and women in the construction industry. This is the ideal way for the Biden administration and Congress to “Build Back Better” and create opportunities for all as we rebuild America together.
• Ben Brubeck is the vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors.
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