The news today is that the State of New York- who has purview over construction of the soon-to-be rebuilt bridge over Lake Champlain that was recently demolished (due to the fact that both New York and Vermont balance their budgets with an eye towards breaks for the rich and short-changing infrastructure)- will likely bid-out construction using a Project Labor Agreement (PLA). A PLA, for those not in the know, is a set of minimum wage, benefit, safety, and workplace conditions that a state or municipality sets for workers on a project conducted by private contractors. Plainly, if the public is going to hire private contractors, a PLA enforces minimum standards for how those private contractors can treat their employees- so it’s like the public (in the guise of government) saying to bosses “pay your workers fairly” (“your workers” in turn being the “public”). Society looking out for its own interests instead of those of the rich or better-off.
I know what your thinking: American society does that? Yeah, well, sometimes.
Of course, bosses (in this particular case, the owners of VT construction firms) are not without a voice. Which is where Associated General Contractors steps in. They jumped out in front of the message machine this morning claiming that a PLA would mean that VT contractors won’t get to bid on one of the biggest projects happening because the vast majority of VT firms are “open shops” (read: “we hire you for what we want to pay you, under the conditions we set for you, and if you don’t like it, you’re out of work”). The cynicism of these folks and their stance on worker’s rights (and livable wages) is clear: Here’s Don Wells of DEW Construction, a AGC member:
“The majority of Vermont contractors are open shops, and what this really does is force them to expose their company and their employees to the union. And most contractors, myself included, would not choose to do that,” Wells said. “People that run open shops take a lot of pride in what they do and the services and benefits they provide to their employees. Typically what happens in a Project Labor Agreement is you lose your right to negotiate with your own employees.”
OK, first the fact-check: a PLA in no way, shape, or form requires anything about hiring unionized workers or having unions negotiate for workers- it merely sets minimums for wages, benefits, etc on a particular job. Secondly, you just have to love the idea that being an “open shop” is what gives bosses a “right to negotiate with your own employees”. The truth, of course, is that an “open shop” gives employers complete control over the conversation and puts workers in the place of accepting what the boss offers or finding work elsewhere. So, excuse me Mr Wells, but you folks “take a lot of pride” in a system which allows you to personally pocket the most at the expense of paying more to your workers? You “take a lot of pride” in a race-to-the-bottom wage system which ensures more Vermonters in need of economic help from the State? But aren’t you guys the same who are backing conservative efforts to gut State-backed programs to aid the very workers who can’t make a livable wage off their hard work?
Another two points from AGC: first, that a PLA would require worker’s on the project to pay union dues. Sorry folks: if you’re not a union member, you don’t pay union dues. But part of this brew-ha stems from an incident in the 1980′s when VT worker’s on one side of a bridge project realized folks working on the NY side- doing the same work- were getting paid better. That led to VT worker’s striking. So everyone has a stake in having wages equalized on both sides of this bridge. But according to AGC VP Cathy Voyer “ensuring equal wages doesn’t require the Project Labor Agreement. On large federal projects, contractors are already bound by minimum wage standards”.
Oh boy. That’s AGC’s idea of “fair” and “decent” and “livable” wages- minimum wage?
But the question her point brings up- considering all a PLA does in actuality is set a particular minimum requirement for wages which is more fair to workers- is why are VT contractors so against it? AGC argues that the union-negotiated NY PLA would drive-up costs as to price VT contractors out of bidding, but that’s clear BS, as this is a Federally funded project, so every dime that the contractors bid is paid for.
The reason, of course, is that AGC is scared shitless that if workers in VT get higher wages because NY unions negotiated a PLA there’s plenty of reason to suspect that at least some workers might put two and two together and say “why don’t we have PLA’s here? why don’t we have a union negotiating for our interests?”.
That, in turn, would mean less money for lavish vacations, outrageously over-priced cars, and fine restaurants for construction firm owners. And, no one in power would want to see something as heart-breaking as that.