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Romney Bashing Unions, Taking Credit for ’02 Olympics, But Unions Made the Games Possible

And it burns, burns, burns. The ring of liar. The ring of liar.

Last weekend, Mitt Romney set off a maelstrom of critique from both parties when he crowed about the success of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Romney was the president of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee and was responsible for attracting federal funding to the event. Democrats quickly attacked Romney for making the 2002 games more expensive than all previous U.S.-held Olympics combined:

The Democratic National Committee (DNC), the campaign arm of the Democratic Party, released a 2 1/2  minute video titled “The Olympic Bailout.” In it, the DNC argues that the taxpayer — not Romney — was the “savior” of the 2002 Olympics, since taxpayers shelled out $1.3 billion.

Romney was president of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, and often points to his role in turning the Olympics around on the campaign trail.

Fact Checking all things Salt Lake Olympics-related quickly became the media’s soup du jour:

-A Romney spokeswoman downplayed Romney’s efforts as “seeking money for post-9/11 security at the Olympics.” But there was a lot more to it than that. The Salt Lake City Organizing Committee under Romney requested — and got — hundreds of millions of federal dollars for the games before 9/11.

-In a web video, the Democratic National Committee slams Romney for heading up “the most expensive games in U.S. history” that “got more taxpayer dollars than any previous Olympics.” The DNC put the cost to federal taxpayers at $1.3 billion. Well, yes and no. Most of that figure was for highways, transit systems and other capital improvements that federal and state officials assert eventually would have flowed to Salt Lake City regardless of the games, but was accelerated to accommodate them. The DNC’s figures include both direct and indirect costs of the Salt Lake City Games, but compare that with only the direct costs of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

-Sen. John McCain, who has endorsed Romney, was a vocal critic of the spending on the Salt Lake City Games at the time. He now claims he opposed the earmarks but would have supported the funding if it had gone through proper channels. But that doesn’t jibe with comments McCain made at the time, calling the amount of federal funds going to Salt Lake City a “rip-off of the American taxpayer” and “a disgrace.”

But what has gone, not surprisingly, unmentioned in all of this is how it relates to one of Romney’s other positions. Forget the national security question. Forget the pork barrel business. What about labor? Romney is taking credit for the cost savings and efficiency of 2002…

In brief remarks to Olympic staff and volunteers on Saturday, Romney highlighted his own efforts to cut costs at the games and was careful to highlight the accomplishments of those who worked for him. He didn’t mention his presidential run.

Romney said he cut millions from the budget to decorate the city and argued some of the venues built in Salt Lake cost much less than they had in other cities that had hosted winter games.

Romney, who has sometimes been accused of taking too much personal credit for saving the games when many others contributed, was careful to acknowledge the support he received.

“I just want to say thanks to all those that lit the fire within. The accounting team, the legal team,” Romney said, referring to the games’ theme song, “Light the Fire Within,” and rattling off the groups he had left off his list of people to thank.

…while bashing labor unions, taking aim at Project Labor Agreements and pushing for a National “Right-to-Work” law. But pages 39-47 of a 2007 report on Project Labor Agreements (PDF) tell the tale of Utah’s I-15, a 17-mile highway bisecting the Salt Lake Valley that was impossibly completed in time for the 2002 Olympics by, you guessed it, union labor under a Project Labor Agreement just like the ones Romney assailed in front of the Associated Builders and Contractors yesterday. Not only did this PLA guarantee timely results, it ensured that the largest highway project Utah had ever tackled would benefit residents by hiring locally. The I-15 case study contained in the 2007 report is quite long so we have lifted paragraphs that provide a kind of cliff’s notes of what took place:

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) estimated that the reconstruction of I-15 could not be completed until after the Olympics in 2002 and probably would not be done until 2004. Then Utah Governor Mike Leavitt later said, “I told [Tom Warne, Executive Director of UDOT], ‘Tom, we’ve got to find a way to do this faster. We cannot have this community torn up for nine years.’”…

Under design-build, construction could be scheduled to begin in early 1997. Contractors would be expected to work around the clock, six or seven days per week. There would be limits on how many lanes could be closed at any given time as well as how many interchanges could be closed. Design- build was particularly cost-effective on large projects but some felt that inevitably out-of-state contractors would be awarded the project. Local contractors were not equipped to handle the scope of work proposed, particularly the engineering required of contractors on a design-build project. However, Warne said that contract language for the I-15 project would stipulate that Utah construction companies would be named as subcontractors…

In September 1996, UDOT prequalified three contractors from a field of ninety that responded to the announcements in March. By September, the project had expanded to include an additional interchange at the north end of the reconstruction project and the relocation of some railroad tracks near the project. The official cost estimate had risen to $1.36 billion due to these additions and other considerations. On March 26, 1997 UDOT announced that Wasatch Constructors (a consortium led by Kiewit Constructors of Omaha and which included several Utah companies) had won the bid…

Ed Mayne, president of the Utah AFL-CIO, was very pleased that Wasatch had won the bid. He felt that Wasatch was the most union-friendly of the three pre-qualified bidders. Indeed, prior to bidding the project, Wasatch had secretly signed a PLA with six local unions agreeing to a uniform set of wages, benefits and work rules that largely corresponded to local union collective bargaining agreements. This agreement was not made public prior to the bid opening because the PLA was part of Wasatch’s bidding strategy. Building a fast-track project under design-build, in a tight labor market, with substantial performance awards and penalties in play, involved considerable risks for Wasatch. The PLA was one means of controlling some of those risks—the ones associated with the supply and quality of labor…

Mayne felt the PLA provided another advantage. Just as it was politically wise to require outside general contractors to partner with local subcontractors, it was also politically sensible to encourage local employment on the biggest public project ever financed by Utah tax dollars. Mayne anticipated that the consortium would hire seventy to eighty percent of its workforce locally despite Utah’s 3.1% state unemployment rate at the time of the bid award. Narby, the person who signed the PLA for Wasatch, agreed that eighty percent local hire was possible particularly if participating nonunion contractors hired locally. The PLA did not prohibit nonunion contractors, and ten percent of the value of the work was exempt from the provisions of the PLA. But if nonunion contractors from out of state brought in their traveling labor force, the amount of local hiring would go down. Union contractors both in-state and out-of-state were required by the local collective bargaining agreement to give preference to local workers over travelers. However, local labor shortages loomed as a problem for all contractors…

Wasatch’s PLA labor strategy and UDOT’s design-build strategy began to pay off for the contractor and the state within six months of ground breaking. UDOT’s first project evaluation covering essentially the first six months of work, April 15 to October 31, 1997, led to the decision to grant Wasatch $2,490,133 of the possible $2,500,000 in bonuses for this stage of the project. The Deseret Morning News reported:

In announcing the award amount Friday morning, UDOT officials had nothing but good things to say about the contractor. And Wasatch officials were obviously pleased that they had earned the bulk of the money they were shooting for…

In May 2000, the Salt Lake Tribune reported:

Wasatch Constructors continued breezing through its Interstate 15 construction schedule last year and lost only $14,000 of a possible $5 million profit for the six month period ending in October [1999]…The contractor lost money for overlooking incorrectly placed beams that needed to be replaced on a 400 South bridge abutment in Salt Lake City, and for an incident last August when a drainage grate on the road popped loose and caused a multi-car accident. The award means that in its first 2 years on the job, Wasatch took home roughly $22.4 million of a possible $22.5 million [in awards].”

With I-15 very close to completion in April of 2001, ahead of schedule and well ahead of the Winter 2002 Olympics, John Bourne, UDOT project director said, “We believe we’ve got very good quality. We’ll see some little dings and nicks that will be replaced,” but he expected these problems to be resolved by the completion of the project. With seven of the nine award-fee evaluations completed, Wasatch had received from UDOT 99.6% of the possible bonuses from the timely completion and successful inspection of its work.

In April of 2002, the I-15 reconstruction was declared the top civil engineering achievement of the year by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE): “The I-15 project contributed greatly to Salt Lake City’s ability to stage a successful 2002 Winter Olympic Games and will continue to serve the area for years to come,” said ASCE President H. Gerald Schwartz, Jr. “The Interstate exemplifies the ideals of innovation, technical excellence and community benefit.”

With the highways ready, ahead of schedule thanks to the PLA, the world could properly travel to and from the Olympic stadiums of Salt Lake City safely and without traffic headaches. But the positive impact of unions on the 2002 Olympics did not stop on I-15. Rather, the electricians’ union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 57, was brought on to run the electricity for the games as well:

PacifiCorp, through Utah Power, and Local 57 IBEW will be the electricity provider for the Winter Olympics. The games begin with opening ceremonies on February 8th and will close on the 24th of February, 2002. There are will 3600 athletes from over 80 countries participating in the Winter Olympics. The opening ceremonies will be witnessed by over 3.5 billion people around the globe, and over 13 billion will witness the games over the 17 days that they will be held.

PacifiCorp and Local 57 will provide power and logistics for ten competition venues and four noncompetition venues, like the media center. So when the TV goes dark, you know we’ve got big trouble at PacifiCorp.

Over 7,000 press credentials will be issued for the 2002 Winter Olympics. And to try to put that into perspective for you, 500 press credentials are issued for a Super Bowl. And running the Olympics — and as my friends at the IBEW and Georgia Power that went through this in Atlanta — it’s similar to running ten Super Bowls every day for 17 days. Through our joint logistical committee, led by Blaine Newman, business manager of Local 57, we are working together.

It comes as no surprise that yesterday Mitt Romney was bashing Project Labor Agreements and labor unions in order to receive the endorsement of the viciously anti-worker Associated Builders and Contractors. After all, Romney has solidified flip-flopping opportunism as his chief characteristic. But the story of who really broke their back to get the games going, and who kept the lights on for the world to watch, needs to be told.


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