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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Apr 12, 2011, 1:57 pm

Unlikely Alliance Stopped Federal Rollback of Construction Wage, Worksite Protections

BY Mike Elk

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Construction unions, AFL-CIO, work with Republicans to protect wages, Project Labor Agreements

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Earlier this year, a small minority of Republicans helped Democrats defeat a GOP attack on two key labor provisions aimed at hurting construction workers. The defeat was a result of a dynamic decade-long effort by construction unions to persuade business and Republicans of the importance of union rights on construction sites.

Forty-eight Republicans, including leader Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), joined 185 Democrats in opposing a repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act. The Act mandates wage levels on federally funded construction projects and ensures that they do not undercut existing union wage levels. Likewise, 26 Republicans joined 184 Democrats to barely defeat an anti-Project Labor Agreement (PLA) amendment with a 210-210 vote.

PLAs are often used by government agencies and companies to negotiate, before construction even begins or bids are made, pay, benefits and safety issues. They help to ensure that unionized construction firms are not at a competitive disadvantage. They have been a top target of anti-union forces since President Barack Obama permitted their use on federal constructed projects, as I wrote for Working in These Times last fall.

At a time when GOP governors are rapidly rolling back union rights, it was a major victory—and a major surprise—that Republicans such as Paul Ryan joined with organized labor to protect union rights. Union officials say the key to this unlikely defeat has been building relationships with those traditionally opposed to them, such as big construction firms, and persuading Republicans of the importance of wage and safety standards for business.

“I think we have made tremendous strides in the last ten years in terms of persuading Republicans that Davis-Bacon and Project Labor Agreements are not just good for construction workers, but they are good for business,” says Michael Monroe, the energetic 31-year-old chief of staff of the AFL-CIO Building Trades and Construction Department. “This is a sea change from where we were ten years ago. Tom Delay, when he was majority leader, would kill a bill on Clean Water if Davis-Bacon was attached to it. Now we aren’t seeing that."

Indeed, construction businesses are increasingly favoring using PLAs to get construction work. Poorly trained workers and poor safety conditions can quickly lead to setbacks on a construction site. Businesses, of course, want to avoid setbacks and cost overruns, and so increasingly prefer to go with unionized construction workers, who get the job done faster and on budget, Monroe says.

“While much of the recent attention has been on federal project labor agreements, we are seeing an ever-steady increase in their use within the private sector,” says Monroe. “In fact, in the private sector in 2010 alone, over 100 agreements valuing tens of billions of dollars were negotiated and put into service all throughout the country.”

The labor federation's Building Trades Department points to a recent letter from heavily anti-union Toyota praising project labor agreements, which have used such agreements in the anti-union South, to demonstrate why companies like such agreements. In the letter, Toyota states

Large-scale construction projects pose unique challenges for corporations such as ours that maintain the highest standards of safety, efficiency and productivity. To address these challenges, Toyota has consistently employed Project Labor Agreements for our major construction projects, and we could not have been more pleased with the results

As a result of unionized business contractors being happy with the results that union workers provide, businesses will often lobby Republican lawmakers in tandem with construction workers when votes come up to repeal key construction union provisions. Construction unions are also helped in their quest to get Republicans to provide support for key labor provisions through the financial support they provide Republicans.

This is not to say the approach of the building trades is not without its detractors in organized labor. Some have criticized the building trades union for being too close to the GOP and giving money to Republicans. But people in the building trades argue that the amount of money they give to Republicans is less than 10 percent of what they give total, and a small price to pay for protecting their rights when union rights everywhere are under attack.

“The numbers we are most concerned with right now are the staggeringly high unemployment numbers in the construction industry and '218' and '60'—the numbers needed to enact legislation in the United States Congress,” says Michael Monroe. “We are hard-pressed to find a member of Congress that we agree with 100 percent of the time. Therefore, in the interest of representing our membership, we engage in the hard work of building the necessary coalitions to advance and maintain industry standards.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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