Don't Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

“A failed PLA substitution could cost Virginia taxpayers and Dulles Toll Road users millions.”

The recent NFL replacement referee debacle has given supporters of organized labor reason to highlight other industries and workforces which suffer when union labor is snubbed. Last week, Dennis L. Martire, LIUNA Mid-Atlantic manager and former Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority board member, did just that in a letter to the Fairfax Times. Martire notes dissatisfaction with the quality of work provided by the NFL’s replacement officials as a reason to go with a union-supported Project Labor Agreement (PLA) on the Dulles Silver Line construction, a question that has been debated for over a year.

Martire suggests that when less qualified workers are brought in, quality often slips:

Most NFL fans would agree the quality of the refereeing suffered when the league substituted less-experienced officials during the contentious contract negotiations. Likewise, Virginians can’t afford to ignore the experience of Phase 1 by cutting out one of the key contributors to the project’s success, the project labor agreement, for Phase 2.

The first phase of the project, built successfully under a PLA, was labeled by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood as a model project worth emulating elsewhere. According to Martire, projects of this scale done without PLAs often lead to confusion and delay as unqualified contractors can get in over their head:

Phase 1 was successful because the PLA controlled project costs, kept the work on schedule, and specified the conditions that kept workers safe. Compare that with the Springfield Interchange — this non-PLA project exceeded its budget by 300 percent and cost three workers their lives.

The winning Phase 2 contractor will choose whether or not it will continue with a PLA. I can only hope they remember this: The NFL’s substitution gamble failed and it cost the Green Bay Packers a game. A failed PLA substitution could cost Virginia taxpayers and Dulles Toll Road users millions and put the Phase 2 workers at greater risk.

To many observers, the Silver Line’s phase 2 delay comes down to partisan politics. PLAs are portrayed as “union only” by big business groups such as the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). Yet, as Washington Post writer Steven Pearlstein has explained, the region’s contractors, both union and non-union, have experience working with the standards set by PLAs:

Dip into this debate and you’ll quickly confront assertions that project labor agreements will add 10 to 15 percent to the cost of Silver Line construction. It’s pure malarkey. All firms doing work on a project with federal money have to pay at least the same minimum wages. In Phase 1, the union firms have wound up paying 3 percent above that minimum. Non-union subcontractors also paid 3 percent above the minimum. In other words, no difference.

What’s so silly about this controversy is that there are only a dozen firms that are big and experienced enough to manage a transit project of this size and complexity, and all of them are giant national and international firms that are either union shops or have long since learned to operate in both union and nonunion environments. The opportunity for local contractors is to bid on subcontracts that are explicitly not required to sign on to project labor agreements. And yet in Phase 1, 80 percent of the nonunion subs have done so voluntarily.

So what are we arguing about here? Politics. Ideology. Certainly nothing that is worth risking the most important economic development project in the region.

This project will employ thousands of workers and provide a vital transportation artery for residents or the Washington DC metro area. A PLA will ensure that local workers are hired and that costs will be controlled through organized coordination. But anti-union contractors have been some of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s top donors since he first ran for the House of Delegates in 2001. No matter how much sense it makes for the Silver Line to be done under a PLA, McDonnell — who initially supported a PLA before being pressured into flip-flopping — seems unlikely to challenge those who helped him ascend to the Governor’s mansion. The list of 2009 McDonnell campaign donations may be the most telling sign of why there is no PLA in place for the second phase of this project.

The NFL referee lockout gave us all an example of what results from snubbing quality workers. Imagine the outcome when you’re talking about cranes and trains.


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