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Port Authority ignored law to placate unions

In response to Keith Brothers’ guest commentary defending the Connecticut Port Authority’s use of a union-only project labor agreement, I must set the record straight. Above all, this is a case of government directing state construction money with a complete lack of transparency.

This isn’t a union vs. non-union issue, it’s an issue of what’s best for the state and for taxpayers. The majority of union and open shop contractors are qualified, reputable businesses with skilled and safe workforces. Most work, public and private, is done without a PLA, often including a blend of union and non-union labor working together. That’s how we build our schools, highways, hospitals and power plants. PLAs are not commonplace in the private sector.

Taxpayers deserve good value for their money. They deserve quality. They deserve an open, transparent and competitive process that delivers a finished product built to last and completed by skilled workers, regardless of what their labor affiliation may be.

It’s important to know that a PLA is an agreement signed before the bidding process begins and requires all, or nearly all, of the work be done by union workers. That’s a decision based purely on labor affiliation, not competence.

Proponents’ claims that a PLA is needed to ensure certain wages are paid are erroneous, as the wages on large state projects are dictated by prevailing wage rates. A PLA doesn’t guarantee a project is delivered on-time or on-budget (see: The Big Dig; Dunkin’ Donuts Park). They don’t and can’t guarantee a specific percentage of the work will go to local residents or minority-owned businesses. Those are “goals,” not guarantees, with no consequences if they aren’t met. PLAs have a history of falling short of those goals.

PLAs absolutely depress competition in bidding, to suggest otherwise defies logic. Roughly 85% of the construction industry in Connecticut is open shop. Most open-shop contractors refuse to bid on a PLA project. The State Pier project is a perfect example with just two out-of-state contractors short-listed while local, qualified and eager contractors were denied a fair opportunity to compete. That’s wrong.

All that said, it’s no surprise that 25 states have outlawed the use of PLAs. Connecticut should as well.

While we oppose all government mandated PLAs, this one is different — it’s worse.

State law requires that government show justification for using a PLA (naturally that requirement doesn’t exist for an open bidding process). In this case, government did no such thing. It has proven unable to provide any justification whatsoever. The Port Authority Board neither discussed nor voted on the PLA in their public meetings. A Freedom of Information request yielded “no responsive documents.”

There was no public discourse, no facts, figures or studies providing an explanation for leaving Connecticut businesses and their workers out in the cold.

Remember, unions operate like businesses, only they are funded from payments made by their workers. They have presidents, business managers and treasurers. By no means is that a criticism. They are free to pursue PLAs, advocate for their members and make political contributions. But that’s also why it’s troubling that the state delivers what are essentially no-bid contracts to their benefit while refusing to follow the requirements of state law.

The public deserves better. We deserve transparency and oversight.

Christopher Fryxell is the president of the Connecticut Chapter of the Associated Builders & Contractors, a statewide trade association representing merit shop contractors.

 

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