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Pair of Rhode Island Op-Ed’s Challenge Anti-Union PLA Falsehoods Perpetrated by Local News

A significant percentage of RI's apprentices are women and minorities.

A significant percentage of Build RI’s apprentices are women and minorities.

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In late February, WPRI 12 in Providence aired a segment about Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) that featured a “local non-union contractor” arguing that the agreements give an unfair advantage to unions.  The contractor was Anne Powers, President of American Tele-Connect and a director of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) Rhode Island chapter.  The piece was one-sided and did not provide any opposing view. Instead, it allowed a lack of journalistic integrity to unfairly muddy the waters of public debate by displaying propaganda as fact.  

In response, Rhode Island labor advocates have been trying to set the record straight via op-ed’s that provide the public with the other side of the story.  Among those advocates are building trades leaders David Rampone and Michael Sabitoni who are also board members of Build RI, a group that was unfairly demonized in the WPRI piece.  In their Providence Journal letter they speak of the successful projects in the region that have been built under PLAs:

Rhode Island has had great success with the use of PLAs on significant public works projects. They include the Kent County Courthouse, the Ryan Center at the University of Rhode Island, the expansion at T.F. Green Airport, the Resource Recovery Leach Field project and the Narragansett Bay Commission’s Phase 1 of the Combined Sewer Overflow project — just to name a few.

PLAs have been used on numerous private projects as well. Examples include the $500 million Amgen expansion, construction at Brown University, the Westin, G-TECH, Bank of America, Twin River Casino, CVS and Women & Infants Hospital. Not to mention power plants in Burrillville, Pawtucket, Johnston and Providence. PLAs have been used on virtually the entire skyline of Providence built over the last 20 years.

So why is it that private, for profit companies, many of which have shareholders, also enter into PLAs? It is in their best business interest. The PLA provides access to the finest skilled craftsmen and women. It standardizes work conditions and includes no-work-stoppage covenants. It often provides a certain percentage of workers, including minorities and women, to come from local communities via apprenticeship programs. These benefits, plus a long track history of success, make the decision easy.

The pair also take aim at a claim made by Powers in the WPRI piece in which she argued that union and non-union apprenticeships are equal. “I listened to conversations that organized labor shops were safer or better trained,” Powers said. “None of that holds ups. There’s no data to support that. My workers are just as safe, just as qualified as anyone in a union shop.”

Rampone and Sabitoni disagree:

It is wrong to suggest there is no difference between union craftsmen and women and non-union workers when it comes to safety. The truth is, local union contractors and unions spend more than $3 million in training workers every year with private industry money. Union-sponsored training has produced the most safety-conscious workers.

In fact, a recent statistic provided by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration shows that out of 28 construction workplace fatalities in Rhode Island between 1999 and 2005, 27 of the fatalities were under non-union contractors. This, despite the fact that the union trades work on the most complex, dangerous construction projects in the state.

Perhaps the biggest disservice done by the WPRI piece was that it downplayed the importance of apprenticeship programs. These vital programs, the union variety at least, can’t possibly be portrayed in a negative light given the tremendous impact they have in creating upward mobility.  This fact was asserted by Andrew L. Cortes, director of Building Futures, in an op-ed of his own following an alumni event for apprenticeship graduates in which he describes the changes in their lives made possible by the completion of the program.  He called the event a “powerful experience”:

A multi-cultural crowd of men and women spoke about their employment and what it meant — being paid to learn a career, supporting their families, purchasing a first home. Their lives had been transformed. Passion, ambition and hope were evident; desperate poverty left in the past. Some were honored for completing three to five years of post-secondary education and training — through registered apprenticeships — earning while learning, instead of incurring student-loan debt. I was at the Fifth Annual Building Futures Alumni Event.

He further praised Rhode Island politicians for working to pass apprenticeship requirements for public works projects while highlighting the workforce diversification aspect of union training:

Ask the 150 Building Futures graduates, employed in 12 different skilled building trades. Employment as apprentices has transformed the quality of their lives and provided an economic future for their families. Our participants are all low-income — until they graduate — and 80 percent are not white; they are African-American, Latino, Southeast Asian and Cape Verdean.

If we don’t act now, labor costs could increase because of the impending skilled labor shortage in construction occupations. Ask our partners, including Brown University, which adopted our Apprentice Utilization Program as policy; 16 projects and 68 new careers begun, and existing registered apprentices gained more work as well. Rhode Islanders gain real careers, construction employers gain a skilled workforce and project owners have a skilled labor pool.

So I commend the state Senate Labor Committee for its recent vote to approve similar apprenticeship requirements for public-works projects.

He further praised the legislation while rebutting anti-union fear-mongering regarding the cost of training and workplace standards for taxpayers:

It makes sense to be concerned about a potential cost impact. At least six other states have similar statutes; after much searching, I have yet to find any research that demonstrates a cost increase because of apprenticeship requirements. Personal experience has not shown a cost increase: in reviewing two bids, both from non-union contractors — one with an apprentice program, one without — the prices were equal. Registered apprenticeship is a national system and not about being a union or non-union contractor; in fact, most programs are small, non-union programs. This bill establishes conformance with federal rules.

Registered apprenticeships are most prevalent in construction; it makes sense to leverage this training while performing public works projects to benefit our economy, our employers and our residents. The Senate has helped Rhode Island get the skills training we already pay for, and through the most effective workforce development system available. I am especially grateful, thinking of the diverse low-income Rhode Islanders who will gain careers, transforming their lives as a result.

Read both op-eds in their entirety here and here.


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