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Union oversight ensures equal footing

Construction contracting is a unique, highly competitive, complex and mobile industry. Construction projects have individual characteristics that separate one project from another. Each phase is dependent on the prior phase to ensure continuity of the project.

In other industries, such as manufacturing, the workers will produce essentially the same product, day after day. In construction, the project will grow out of the ground in separate phases until it is eventually completed.

Completing one construction project may involve the use of 10, 20, 30 or more separate subcontractors. Several subcontractors within each separate construction discipline usually bid competitively for the jobs. Depending on project size, during the bidding stage hundreds of subcontractors could be involved in competing for the work. The subcontractors may, in turn, use more subcontractors. In some cases, temporary, cash-paid workers are found working for construction contractors. This procedure is not as prevalent in traditional settings, such as manufacturing or retail.

Construction unions and union contractors advocate for the payment of fair wages and benefits to construction workers. When a contractor secures a project by undercutting the wages and benefits of the work force, fair contractors and their workers are understandably upset.

Many construction projects end up being done with a combination of union and nonunion subcontractors. Some of the nonunion contractors gain their competitive edge by paying their workers less than the 'prevailing wage' for the community. This can cause unrest on the job site, resulting in job delays, labor disputes and poor cooperation between contractors.

To address these issues, the construction unions have developed the use of project labor agreements, which guarantee fair wages and benefits for all workers on the project and guarantee that the project is built without disruptions.

These agreements include procedures to solve grievances, craft-jurisdiction disputes, overtime on shift work and drug-testing policies, handling the issues internally without affecting the project schedule. PLAs have been used for many years on a variety of private and public projects. Unions have agreed to work with all parties to ensure that a project is fair for all and runs smoothly.

Cockshaw's Construction Labor News & Opinion is a nationally recognized independent monthly construction newsletter. It has found that PLAs offered many of the benefits that supporters have claimed. In November 2001, it published an article using two studies Ñ one from UCLA and the other from the California Research Bureau.

'The three major claims of opponents are that PLAs exclude, or discriminate against, nonunion contractors, reduce competition and increase labor costs,' Cockshaw's has quoted UCLA researcher Daniel Rounds as saying. 'These arguments were roundly rejected by officials we interviewed.'

Cockshaw's goes on to report that 'owners increasingly want PLAs in order to meet their speed-to-market demands.' UCLA examined three projects and reported that the agreements 'facilitated labor peace, fostered workplace cooperation and insured an adequate supply of skilled manpower.' The California Research Bureau's study is a detailed 94-page report. Researchers found that 'complex, long-term projects' required the stability and timeliness that PLAs provide. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that, according to the 105th U.S. Congress, 'PLAs do not exclude any contractors from bidding on a project, even if they have never been signatory to a collective bargaining agreement.'

Locally, there also is evidence to show that PLAs are fair and are actually a smart move budgetwise. The light-rail extension from Gateway to the Portland Airport is a recent example in the Portland area. This was a very successful project that was done on time and within budget, and was open to all construction companies.

The most controversial PLAs are those that involve taxpayer financing. To be fair to all contractors, unions have agreed to allow nonunion contractors to work on publicly financed PLA sites via a one-time agreement to use union workers and/or pay prevailing wages to their workers on the project. But even this arrangement is not well-received by the antiunion organizations.

There are many construction unions and union contracting associations that advocate for fair wage and benefit standards. Workers who are paid fair wages in turn pay taxes based on those fair-wage standards. The tax base contributes to the maintenance of our schools, roads, bridges, national defense and general public infrastructure. Contractors who pay workers substantially less only shift the burden to the rest of us. Those who have medical benefits invariably shoulder some of the expense for those who get needed medical care but are not fortunate enough to work for an employer who recognizes the importance of medical insurance.

Our opponents argue that we inflate the price of a project. But union contractors do very well in the private marketplace, where competitive bidding is not required. If union contractors were not fair in their pricing and the proper, on-time delivery of a quality product, they would not be so successful on privately funded work.

I believe those that oppose fair wage/benefit requirements are just exhibiting a 'sour grapes attitude' instead of competing on a level playing field based on experience, efficiency and good planning with the goal of delivering a quality product, on time and within budget.

In short, 'You get what you pay for.' And furthermore, 'If it isn't broke, don't fix it.'

Bruce Dennis is president of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. He attended Parkrose High School and graduated from Portland State University. He lives in Northeast Portland.