The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 23, 2011

PLA-killer law leads to suspension of CUB agreement

By The Building Tradesman

One of the first casualties of the new state law banning project labor agreements is one of the oldest building trades labor-management pacts in the U.S.: Washtenaw County’s Construction Unity Board (CUB) agreement.

On Sept. 7, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners gave initial approval with a 6-4 vote to suspend the use of CUB agreements on county construction projects. The CUB agreement, established in 1968, spells out various terms for the hiring of contractors on county-funded work, and requires contractors to abide by the terms of local collective bargaining agreements. A final vote by the board was expected Sept. 21.

Driving their action was Gov. Rick Snyder’s July 19 signing of the Republican-backed Public Act 98, which prevents local communities from entering into project labor agreements on taxpayer-funded projects. The action was clearly another anti-union law by a state Republican Party that has had unions in their crosshairs all year. The anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors wasted no time in sending a letter to Washtenaw County officials and those in other municipalities around Michigan, informing them that any project labor agreement law on their books is invalid under state law.

“We anticipated that this could happen in Washtenaw County, and it did,” said Greg Stephens, business manager of Ann Arbor-based IBEW Local 252 who serves on the Board of Directors of the Construction Unity Board. “I think a positive is that they didn’t take out language regarding PLAs, it was suspended and can be put back in at any time. Now we just have to wait to see what happens with the lawsuit by the Michigan Building Trades.”

That lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of Michigan federal court by the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, seeks to overturn the PA 98 state law banning PLAs. PLAs are labor agreements between private companies or municipalities, and contractors about to let construction work, that seek to set language regarding things like wages, benefits, collective bargaining, safety and shift hours. The agreements are sought by some owners because they bring a level of certainty regarding cost and worker skill to projects.

Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council attorney John Canzano said the federal court has not ruled on his request for a fast-track, permanent injunction that would bar enforcement of the state law. He said he has also requested a speedy ruling from the court. “We’re expecting to get a ruling relatively soon,” Canzano said.

Canzano said the building trades are questioning the legality of the law based on two factors. The first involves the landmark Boston Harbor case, where the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided in 1993 that PLAs by municipalities were legal. A key to that ruling, Canzano said, was that the high court indicated that it is legal for a government to enter into a PLA on a case by case basis, but it’s not necessarily OK to use PLAs as a mandatory, blanket policy. Michigan’s Public Act 98, however, is a blanket policy that excludes PLAs, and doesn’t allow local communities to consider them on even a case-by-case basis.

“It interferes with union rights to collectively bargain when a community may want a PLA,” Canzano said.

The second factor sought by the trades to halt enforcement of the law is an obscure “impairment of contract” clause, that prevents governments from ending an existing contract between parties.

Canzano said he has heard of a handful of other municipalities that have sought to suspend their PLA language. “And we’re hoping they choose to suspend their PLAs, rather than to end them completely, because most of the places that have PLAs sought to get the agreements in the first place, and because they know it’s a good way of doing business,” he said.

Stephens said that’s been the case in Washtenaw County.

“The CUB agreement has served the county very well over the years,” Stephens said. “It’s a very good deal. But the ABC did a very good job with their scare tactic of sending out the letters.”