A Project Labor Agreement is a trade-off between the project owner (in this case, the state) and the people building the project. Basically, the state agrees to hire all workers on the project through specified union halls, and non-union workers have to pay union dues while on the project. In exchange, the state gets a guarantee of labor peace – no strikes, slowdowns, etc. – and also sets wages for the life of the project so that it won’t be hit with unanticipated wage increases.
What this does not mean is that non-union contractors are prohibited from bidding on these projects. It may mean that, in practice, they are unlikely to win them. But they can still bid. Even the PLA-hating Beacon Hill Institute describes the situation this way (PDF, p. 7):
open-shop contractors contend that their competitive advantages are nullified by the PLA. The result is that in practice, if not in principle, they are unable to bid competitively on jobs that have a PLA requirement.
Furthermore, the Supreme Judicial Court held a decade ago that PLAs are acceptable only in certain kinds of construction projects.
We do not articulate a bright-line, litmus-test standard for determining when the use of a PLA is appropriate. Nor do we conclude that a PLA will be justified in all, or even most, circumstances. A project must be of substantial size, duration, timing, and complexity, and the interplay between all four of these factors must be considered. It may be that, in certain cases, the sheer size of a project warrants the adoption of a PLA. In most circumstances, the building of a single school will not, in and of itself, justify the use of a PLA.
No word from Charlie Baker as to how much of the $1.6 billion in public construction projects would actually be potentially subject to PLAs, but it seems certain from the SJC’s decision that it’s considerably less than 100% of it.
So, do PLAs favor union contractors? You bet. And there’s an interesting policy discussion to be had about whether or not that’s a good thing. But let’s not put out disinformation about what PLAs actually are, and what they actually do.