Payoff Time for Construction Unions

by James A. Bacon

Among economic special interest groups in Virginia, organized labor is consistently one of the top contributors to political campaigns. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Big Labor has contributed $46 million to candidates since 1996-97, almost all of it to Democrats. The construction unions, which are the biggest donors of all, have been rewarded this year by a raft of bills that would give them a huge leg up in projects involving government, independent authorities, and even private developers seeking zoning approvals.

Only one bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, has made it past the committee stage so far. But the bills seen collectively provide a road map of the construction unions’ legislative agenda and what the anti-business wing of the Democratic Party is prepared to support. Here are the bills:

SB 182: This bill, sponsored by Saslaw and co-patron Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon, would repeal a provision in state law enacted in 2012 forbidding state agencies from either requiring or prohibiting bidders on public works projects to require a Project Labor Agreement (PLA). The 2012 legislation arose after a controversy surrounding bidding on construction of the Washington Metro Silver Line project, in which the manager of that project, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) initially required in its term sheet that bidders enter into a PLA. Before the MWAA reversed itself, the terms effectively eliminated non-union contractors from consideration. The 2012 legislation required government entities to remain neutral regarding bidders’ union status. By repealing that law, the Saslaw-Boysko bill would make it possible for government entities once again to require PLAs. That bill has made it out of committee for consideration by the full Senate.

HB 1311, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, is the House mirror bill of the Saslaw-Boysko legislation. Kory’s bill would repeal provisions requiring or forbidding state agencies from requiring PLAs.

More forthright is HB 358, introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington. This bill would directly authorize “any public body” to “require bidders to enter into or adhere to project labor agreements on public works projects.” Similar in intent is HB 122, sponsored by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge.

SB 839  would go a step further. This bill, patroned by Sen. Adam Ebbin D-Alexandria, would authorize localities to require private-project developers seeking special use permits to “enter into binding contractual commitments that provide protections for the skilled and unskilled workers hired to build the development project.” The provision would apply to developments at a floor-area-ratio (FAR) of greater than 1.0 or 25 units per acre, and to construction of public facilities, roads, or publicly owned or managed areas. The contracts could cover such topics as hiring standards, wage levels, wage-theft protections, training, and dispute resolution. This bill has not yet made it out of committee.

If you really want a good scare, consider HB 582, sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Dale City, with five co-patrons, that would repeal the prohibition of collective bargaining by public employees. The bill would create a Public Employee Relations Board to determine appropriate bargaining units and provide for union certification elections.

And then there’s SB 8, also sponsored by Saslaw, that would require contractors and subcontractors on public works projects to pay “the prevailing wage rate.” That wage rate would be the same as determined by the federal Davis-Bacon Act. The Davis-Bacon Act works to inflate the wages of construction workers and run up the cost of public works projects. But, of course, the bill would benefit construction unions…. which would benefit the Democrats to whom the unions contribute.