The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 27, 2001

PLAs drive up costs? Bridge project points out myth vs. reality

By The Building Tradesman

The Wilson Bridge in Maryland has yet to be built - but already it is a symbol of some wrong-headed thinking about union-only project labor agreements (PLAs).

The proposed 12-lane, $2.2 billion bridge would replace an aging span over the Potomac River that's part of the "Beltway" road around Washington D.C. President George W. Bush removed any hope that a union-only PLA would be assigned to the construction of the bridge: soon after he took office, Bush outlawed PLAs on federally funded projects.

In making the argument against PLAs, the Bush Administration listened to one of its biggest campaign contributors, the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, which argued that union-only PLAs "ignore the economic common sense of fair and open competition" and "have been shown to drive construction costs up 20 percent or more."

That's the typical anti-union rhetoric, but it's usually fiction. In this case, when the bids came in on the foundation contract, a nonunion contracting consortium, Tidewater/Kiewit/Clark, was lowest, coming in at $125.4 million. According to Building Trades Department President Edward Sullivan, that bid was only 2.5 percent less than the next lowest bidder, a union contractor.

"This is in stark contrast with what the critics of union construction predicted in regard to the cost of union construction," Sullivan said in a letter to Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. "When you factor in our increased skill level, productivity, safety training and the proven ability to bring the project in on-time and on-budget, as was done on the first dredging contract awarded on the Wilson Bridge, there is no doubt that Maryland will save much more money than the small difference in these bids."

As further proof of the value of PLAs, we reported in our last issue that no less than 33 Republican House lawmakers signed a March 12 letter to President Bush expressing disappointment with his anti-PLA stand. Such agreements, they said, "increase productivity and keep complex projects on schedule."