My Turn: Union’s criticism misses mark on Job Corps project

Last modified: 8/31/2013 12:52:15 AM
Re “Hypocrisy from Ayotte on Jobs Center” (Monitor Forum, Aug. 28):

It’s puzzling why New Hampshire Building and Construction Trades Council President Joe Casey is attacking Sen. Kelly Ayotte and New Hampshire’s merit shop contracting community for fighting for a fair shot to compete to win federal contracts to build the U.S Department of Labor’s new $31.6 million New Hampshire Job Corps Center in Manchester.

By opposing the union-favoring, project-labor agreement mandated by the labor department, we increased competition from local contractors, created jobs for New Hampshire construction tradespeople, saved taxpayers millions of dollars and fought special interest favoritism that is plaguing federal contracting.

If anyone should be criticized for delays related to the Job Corps Center, it’s organized labor and its cronies in government for requiring a project-labor agreement in the first place.

According to Federal Election Committee data, the 17 largest national construction trade unions donated nearly $65 million to federal candidates during the 2011-12 election cycle, earning the distinction as the No. 1 overall hard PAC dollar donor to the Democratic Party. It was a thank-you note to President Obama, who after 16 days in office, signed a Feb. 6, 2009, executive order encouraging federal agencies to mandate project-labor agreements on federal construction projects exceeding $25 million.

A project-labor agreement typically requires contractors to hire union labor, follow inefficient union work rules and pay into union benefits plans even if firms have existing benefits plans. Additionally, nonunion tradespeople are forced to pay union dues, and they forfeit benefits earned during the life of the project unless they join a union and become vested in union benefit programs.

It’s no surprise such red tape and worker exploitation discourages competition from qualified merit shop firms and tradespeople in New Hampshire, where just 10.7 percent of the construction workforce belongs to a union.

In short, a government-mandated project-labor agreement is a scheme concocted by politicians and Big Labor to steer government contracts to select unionized builders and create jobs exclusively for union members at the expense of everyone else – which is exactly why federal contractors, with help from my organization, filed a bid protest with the Government Accountability Office against the labor department’s anti-competitive requirement.

In the face of a certain loss before the GAO, the labor department cancelled the solicitation in 2009. Rather than create jobs immediately and break ground without a project-labor agreement, the department waited more than two years to reissue the project’s solicitation – again with a project-labor agreement –while sinking $428,000 into taxpayer-funded studies justifying the use of such an agreement on the Job Corps Center and other federal projects.

Again, we challenged the project-labor agreement in 2012 and prevailed.

A comparison of contractor bids submitted to the labor department with and without a project-labor agreement requirement proves this was a fight worth having.

The number of bidders on the project increased from three to nine when the project-labor agreement requirement was removed. The average bid dropped from $39 million with a project-labor agreement to $35 million without a project-labor agreement. The contract was awarded to a New Hampshire firm that bid $31.635 million without a project-labor agreement, saving taxpayers nearly $6.237 million (16.5 percent) compared with the lowest project-labor agreement bid from a Florida firm.

These facts are an embarrassment to project-labor agreement proponents, which is why Casey has to rely on falsehoods and politically motivated attacks.

In contrast to Casey’s rhetoric, all the project’s tradespeople must be paid an hourly wage and benefit rate exceeding a Department of Labor-determined rate typically consistent with above-market local union rates. Local contractors and union and nonunion tradespeople will build the Job Corps Center with a commitment to quality and safety in accordance with federal rules and regulations.

It is time to put this controversy behind us and let the new Job Corps Center serve as a reminder that project-labor-agreement-free competition is the best way to serve all taxpayers instead of only well-connected special interests.

Ayotte deserves praise, not criticism, for advocating for fair and open competition in federal contracting.

(Mark Holden is president of Associated Builders and Contractors, New Hampshire/Vermont.)

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