The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 06, 2011

Anti-labor bills lurking in GOP’s agenda

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING – After the initial flurry of anti-worker, anti-union bills introduced in the Republican-dominated legislature earlier this year, then numerous protest rallies on the Capitol Building’s front steps, follow-up legislative action has been moving a bit slowly, hasn’t it?

“Not at all,” said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. “Don’t mistake the lack of headlines coming out of Lansing as a sign that nothing has been happening on all those bills. Things are moving slowly, but they’re moving, and we don’t like a lot of what we’re seeing.”

So far, the worst legislation to be adopted, as far as organized labor is concerned, is the passage of the Emergency Financial Manager legislation, which basically allows the appointment by the governor of a full-fledged dictator to govern financially strapped municipalities and school districts. The EFM would have the complete ability to abrogate union contracts, hire and fire workers, and sell property.

But there’s plenty more happening in Republican-led legislative committees and back rooms that could have a devastating effect on the building trades and the rest of organized labor. Furthest along in the process are resolutions to severely restrict the use of project labor agreements on state-funded construction projects. Republican work on the anti-PLA legislation is ahead of legislation that would overturn the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act, which is also a major concern of the building trades.

Both the state House and Senate have passed different versions of anti-PLA laws.

Devlin has testified for PLAs and provided information to Republican lawmakers on the business benefits of project labor agreements – but he’s not optimistic, given what he’s hearing. “PLAs are in trouble,” he said. “Republicans are getting their marching orders from the (anti-union) Associated Builders and Contractors, and they would love to ban PLAs. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The anti-PLA measures that are in the House and Senate would outlaw the use of project labor agreements by the state or by individual municipalities, school districts or universities on construction projects that use state tax money. Devlin said Republicans are also looking to ban the use of PLAs on construction projects that are also indirect recipients of state tax credits, like those given for brownfield projects and land grants.

Just like in private business, several cities, counties, school boards and universities in Michigan have adopted laws in past years that allow the use of project labor agreements. They’re usually drawn up by the construction team for a particular project and allow the hiring of workers who are subject to a collective bargaining agreement at prevailing wage levels, in exchange for things like agreeing to no-strikes, no lockouts, safety and drug testing, and shift premiums.

“They’re just local business agreements – that’s all PLAs really are,” Devlin said. “And now Republicans in this state want to tell local communities what they can’t and can’t do, even if PLAs have worked great for them in the past.”

Todd Tennis, a lobbyist for the IBEW, said “the first slew” of more than 40 anti-labor bills have been targeted at public sector employees. In addition to the EFM law, other bills would do things like restrict their ability to collectively bargain, collect dues and conduct business on municipal property.

“A lot of people in the building trades might say that’s not our fight, but they’re coming after the public sector unions today and they’re coming after us tomorrow,” Tennis said. “Once they get past the state budget, look out.”

Operating Engineers Local 324 Legislative Director Lisa Canada said passage of the state budget has moved much of the anti-worker legislation to the back-burner, but that doesn’t mean it’s not cooking. Gov. Rick Snyder has said he wants the budget approved by the end of May.

“I think this is a good time to educate our members, and get them motivated to contact their legislators, and let them know that what they’re doing is going to be a detriment to our livelihood,” she said.