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.

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4 responses to “Payoff Time for Construction Unions

  1. I think in all the prior years, compromise was possible. I think it is still possible but demonizing the unions is not the way to do it.

    Despite a booming economy, workers are not really benefiting. Sure, there are more jobs now because of deficit financing of stimulus but workers wages are depressed, they can and are fired at will without recourse, and more and more are employed in the GIG economy with no health care and no pension AND they have to pay the FULL FICA tax on their earnings. By the time all of this is figured in, many are working at near poverty wages.

    I see nothing wrong with public employees having the right to collectively bargain – but not to be able to strike.

    We have a system right now that basically allows serious mistreatment of individual workers whereas an organized group could put some balance back into the equation.

    We also have a system that encourages/incentivizes the use of illegal labor and in turn predatory behaviors toward workers that have no protections.

    As I said – there IS ROOM for middle ground but the days of the GOP swatting down everything are probably gone.

    Govt has a responsibility to not only respond to business needs but also to workers and to this point, it’s been grossly lopsided in Virginia.

    Time to change. An opportunity to do it gracefully – both sides.

    No more ” my way or the highways”…

    yeah, I know… BUMMER!

  2. No Democrat on this blog or anywhere else in Virginia has a shred of credibility calling Republicans the party of special interests so long as Dick Saslaw holds office. I’ll give old Slick Dick credit – he’s an equal opportunity hero of the rent seeking class. One day he’s kneecapping the SCC on behalf of Dominion the next he’s pumping up the cost of state projects on behalf of the construction unions.

    • I don’t call only the GOP on special interests. It’s manifest in our political system when Corporations can exercise their “free speech” by using money to corrupt our legislative process.

      The problem is the GOP tends to cater more to corporate and the dems to unions and when you advocate for stopping it – they say that it’s “just” lobbying and you should stop that.. and other offal for rubes.

  3. $46 million!? That’s a lot of money in campaign contributions. Wait a minute: that was over a 24-year period. That comes to less than $2 million a year. Not so much, after all.

    Although I was a public service employee, I don’t support the right for them to bargain and strike.

    Of all the bills listed, I would support the one dealing with the Davis-Bacon provision. In the end, it helps workers without making them join unions and puts all contractors on an equal plane as far as wage costs are concerned.

    SB 182 has not really passed the committee stage. It has just been re-referred from one committee to another one. It seems that it was put in the wrong committee at first or maybe it was just that Saslaw wanted his bill in the committee he chairs.

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