The second phase of the Dulles Metrorail expansion in Northern Virginia has become an unrelenting political game between the state’s Far Right GOP and worker representatives. The first phase of the project was built under a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) but the Virginia GOP is now holding up the second phase, refusing to move forward unless the PLA is revoked. Governor Bob McDonnell is withholding a $150 million portion of the project’s funding to stick it to unions and their Democratic allies.
This week, though, it came to light that McDonnell’s position has not always been one of abject contention toward unions. He and his transportation secretary had, in fact, supported a PLA and discussed one with Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) officials for months before caving to pressure from GOP influencers.
Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), chairman of the House Transportation Committee who shepherded McDonnell’s MWAA-related legislation this session, called the initial language the McDonnell administration negotiated a “good compromise.”
May said he has been baffled by the administration’s shift on project labor agreements, likening the situation to the famous comedy routine by Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?”
“There has been enormously changing ground rules,’’ he said. “This has been one of the more confusing issues.’’
The Dulles project is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the nation with a $6 billion price tag. The increased hostility toward the PLA has left many Virginia lawmakers confused, including moderate Republicans.
Arguments about how PLAs can be implemented without violating Virginia’s “Right-to-Work” law are being made, yet many see through the fog of rhetoric and realize this is an affront to labor masquerading as honest discourse. The delay has ensured the impossibility of the second phase being completed on time:
This week, the MWAA board of directors is expected to vote on whether to press ahead with the labor agreement. So far, it has shown no inclination to drop it. The board’s decision could determine whether the Silver Line ever reaches Loudoun, where supervisors have said they won’t make an estimated $200 million contribution if the labor agreement goes forward.
The uncertainty surrounding what is one of the country’s largest infrastructure projects has all but ensured that it will be delayed.
The aforementioned revelations unearthed by the Washington Post shown that a compromise was agreed to in principal before objections from the right caused them to break down:
The e-mails were provided to The Washington Post by people who are sympathetic to the MWAA and who have been frustrated that McDonnell’s shift has drawn little attention.
The dozens of brief notes exchanged over a period of four months and a subsequent memorandum of understanding among Silver Line contributors show that Connaughton and Jack Potter, the MWAA chief executive, worked carefully on the wording before agreeing to a set of principles that enabled a mandatory project labor agreement.
“Sean, are you okay with the principle below?’’ Potter asked July 27.
“Yes,’’ Connaughton responded.
In November, in an apparent sign of continuing progress, the MWAA asked Connaughton where to send a copy of the agreement for his signature.
But the sentiment soon changed. Connaughton never signed an agreement for a PLA for Phase 2. In February, amid mounting Republican criticism of the PLA for Phase 1, the General Assembly enacted a law intended to prohibit PLAs on the Silver Line project.
Virginia’s “Right-to-Work” law draws definite distinctions between “mandatory” and “voluntary” PLAs. Now, Virginia lawmakers are caught up in a game of words that would be pure comedy if not for the jobs that hang in the balance.
Administration officials acknowledge that Connaughton had been negotiating. But they say it was for a voluntary PLA, not a mandatory one. Later, McDonnell sent a letter saying Virginia would not accept an agreement that violated the state’s right-to-work law. Such statutes prohibit a company and a union from signing a contract that requires workers to be union members.
But Potter said Virginia’s right-to-work law allows a mandatory project labor agreement. “I don’t think there was a comprehensive understanding of the right-to-work law.”
When it was finally decided that this PLA would not violate “Right-to-Work” McDonnell all but made a handshake agreement via who he appointed to handle negotiations. The Governor quickly pulled back after coming under fire from his own party.
McDonnell was facing heat from the conservative wing of his party. “They’re responding to the concerns of the legislature,’’ said Del. Robert G. Marshall, a conservative Republican from Prince William who is running for U.S. Senate and has been vocal on the issue. “He’s pulling back because Republicans are putting their foot down.”
Sen. Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) said McDonnell changed his mind on the PLA the same way he did when he initially agreed to give up to$300 million more for the project.
“That’s not what they had agreed to,’’ Herring said. “It was an about-face. There are certain voices in the governor’s party who didn’t agree and caused him to disagree.’’
MWAA board member Bob Brown said Connaughton had negotiated a mandatory PLA for Phase 2.
“It’s very clear and the records showed that. We had a handshake deal,’’ he said. “We have had to constantly change things to accommodate this guy. He’s made more noise than anyone at the table.’’