Florida legislators acting on behalf of wealthy patrons have attacked the one law that has assured labor peace on public construction projects for years: the project labor agreement. The well-funded effort paves the way for race-to-the-bottom, unscrupulous contractors who underpay their workers and frequently perform shoddy work.
“Without PLAs, unions get priced out because nonunion contractors can lowball their bids and bring in out-of-state workers – at taxpayer expense,” said Theresa King, president of the Florida Building and Construction Trades Council and recording secretary of Tampa, Fla., Local 915. “That money leaves the community and those areas are devastated.”
The new law prohibits state and local governments from requiring contractors working on public works projects to pay a pre-determined wage, hire certain classifications of employees like apprentices or local residents or hire employees from a single source. The bill pre-empts local ordinances if the project receives more than 50 percent state funding.
In addition to setting wages and working conditions that ensure a skilled and safe workforce, PLAs keep projects on schedule and under budget. The agreements, which date back to the 1930s, provide for a streamlined construction process and prevent labor-management conflict by including mechanisms to solve disputes quickly and effectively.
PLAs also boost local economies. Many include requirements for local hiring, ensuring that government-funded projects keep their taxpayer dollars in the community. They can also require apprenticeship training and preferential hiring for women and minorities. King and other IBEW members were part of the pro-labor coalition that lobbied against the bill, which included IBEW members from across the state.
“They say PLAs impose ‘restrictive conditions’ on business, and that it’s about ‘freedom.’ Paying someone a living wage isn’t restrictive,” said Jennifer Kenny, Orlando, Fla., Local 606 assistant business agent and part of the lobbying effort. “It’s freedom for contractors to make more money and keep it out of a hardworking person’s pocket.” James Ingle, apprentice instructor and vice president of Gainesville, Fla., Local 1205 also went to Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city, and brought an apprentice with him. “It’s good for our members to lobby, to see the process and get their heads around how democracy works, even though it can be demoralizing,” Ingle said. “These are the people who represent us, making decisions on our behalf. They need to hear from us and learn how those decisions affect our lives.”
The law, which went into effect July 1, was a main priority of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a powerful and aggressively anti-union group of construction contractors, King said. The ABC has a long track record of opposing issues like PLAs and workplace safety, and of spending millions of dollars supporting anti-union candidates for office. “They’re furious,” she said of the local leaders. “They’ve been working with the trades for decades on policies like local hiring and apprentice requirements. This is the ABC’s bill, not the working families of Florida’s.”
A report by the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, published in 2012, uncovered a number of misleading claims by the ABC. The group claims to represent “80 percent of construction,” yet its actual membership amounts to only 1 percent. In fact, a substantial portion of its membership has no relationship to the construction industry at all. "This report proves what we in the organized building trades have known for some time: that the ABC is essentially an astroturf advocacy group funded for the sole purpose of torpedoing worker's rights around the country," said Terry O'Sullivan, president of the Laborer's International Union of America.
The Sunshine State law does not apply to federal funds. However, a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, sponsored by Republican Dennis Ross of Florida, is pushing for just that. King says ABC also supports that bill. “It’s a nationwide effort,” she said. “We’re going to have to fight it tooth and nail.”