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Union-Only Bridge Work Draws Fire in MA

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

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Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has sparked storms of protest over his abrupt decision to restrict work on a forthcoming $285 million bridge project to union contractors.

The restriction on the rehabilitation of the Whittier Memorial Bridge is the second time in four months—and the third time in two years—that Patrick has tied a Project Labor Agreement to a major publicly funded project.

 Gov. Deval Patrick (left) and Charles D. Baker (right)

 Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Deval Patrick (left) has earmarked three public projects totaling nearly $1.3 billion for union labor since 2010. Charles D. Baker Jr. (right), Patrick’s Republican opponent in 2010, said the move would add $100 million to one $750 million project.

In March, the governor announced the same requirement on the $260 million reconstruction of the Longfellow Bridge over the Charles River—the first PLA for a highway project in Massachusetts.

And in 2010, Patrick attached a PLA restriction to the $750 million renovation and reconstruction of the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Union Mandate, Non-Union Pool

Project Labor Agreements, or PLAs, require companies that bid on construction work to hire union workers, in exchange for agreeing not to strike.

In Massachusetts, however, no more than15 percent of construction workers belong to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Longfellow and Whittier projects are two of five major bridge projects that Massachusetts will launch in the next few months. The Whittier, 58 years old and 1,346 feet long, carries 73,000 vehicles a day on Interstate 95 over the Merrimack River.

The renovation project, which has been in the design stage since 2008, will add a lane in each direction, overhaul the structurally deficient three-span structure, and rebuild several I-95 interchanges.


The union requirements have infuriated nonunion companies and others, who accuse the governor of election-year pandering and say the restrictions will grossly inflate the cost of taxpayer-funded projects.

The administration justified the UMass deal by saying that union safety and training standards, along with a no-strike promise, made such agreements more efficient. A spokeswoman said the arrangement was “likely to present some cost savings.”

 Whittier Memorial Bridge


The administration cites the “size and complexity” of the Whittier Memorial Bridge project in insisting on a Project Labor Agreement.

Charles D. Baker, Patrick’s Republican opponent for governor at the time, disagreed. Baker said the decision would add $100 million to the project’s cost.

“Governor Patrick continues to be reckless with spending taxpayer dollars and continues to prove that he is unwilling to push for the reforms necessary to save millions of dollars,’’ said Baker, who vowed to end PLAs if elected.

In March, The Boston Globe called the Longfellow Bridge union decision “costly and unfair.”  The Globe said PLAs were a “pointless premium” that “are never truly necessary” and “effectively keep union firms from having to compete with non-union companies.”

The Massachusetts Republican Party has blasted the Whittier decision as a “sweetheart” union deal. The president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts (ABC), an open-shop group, calls it “mind-boggling,” while a nonunion watchdog group for public works projects deemed it “despicable.”

Broken Promise?

The groups also say that the decision violates an assurance by state Transportation Secretary Richard Davey to a construction group earlier this year that no bridge projects then in the pipeline would have such restrictions.

The administration then changed its mind and made the announcement shortly before bids were due, after joint ventures had been completed and bids developed, according to ABC, the state’s largest construction trade association.

Davey insists he made no such promise, adding, “People may have heard what they wanted to hear.’’

‘Size and Complexity’ Cited

In all three projects, administration officials say the scope and difficulty of the project demand highly skilled labor and the guarantee of a no-strike promise.

Rebuilding the Whittier Memorial Bridge is a project of a “size and complexity” that requires highly skilled labor and labor stability, Davey has said.

(In an interview with The Boston Globe, however, Davey said that nonunion contractors also had the expertise for the job.)

Patrick spokesman Brendan Ryan told the Globe that politics played no role in the Whittier Bridge decision and noted that the governor had refused to attach the union requirement to the upcoming Fore River Bridge construction.

“I understand that people won’t agree with every decision we make, but to misrepresent what happened and resort to baseless accusations about the integrity of the decision- making process is surprising and unfortunate,’’ Ryan said.

‘Not What We Need’

ABC, citing a 2010 poll, says 69 percent of Massachusetts residents oppose compelling contractors to hire all of their workers through unions. The 24,000-member builders group says “at least 11 states” outside Massachusetts have banned the use of PLAs on state-funded construction projects.

ABC has developed a fact sheet and video, “Not What We Need; Not What We Deserve,” to raise awareness of the issue.

ABC video

Greg Beeman, the group’s president, calls the union restriction “mind-boggling.”

Ronald N. Cogliano, president of the open-shop Merit Construction Alliance, which monitors public-works projects, declared it “despicable.’’

“When does the political¬favoritism in the Commonwealth end?’’ Cogliano told The Boston Globe. “Taxpayers are already beleaguered. The governor is piling on more construction costs so he can curry more favor with organized labor.’’

Unions Deny Pressure

The 75,000-member Massachusetts Building Trades Council says PLAs benefit municipalities but denies pressuring the administration on the issue.

“We’ve advocated for a PLA for a number of projects, but I wouldn’t presume to demand anything,’’ MBTC president Francis X. Callahan told the Globe. “We just argue that these major projects like the Whittier Bridge are sufficient in size, scope, and complexity to benefit from a PLA.’’


Tagged categories: Bidding; Bridges; Contractors; Labor; Project Management

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/18/2012, 10:41 AM)

If a Union-worker project actually presented cost savings, construction companies would be actively courting the unions for their highly trained members. I'm also surprised at the high cost estimate. The Dallas "High Five" was considerably more complex and larger for about the same cost. Finished over a year early too.

Comment from James Johnson, (7/18/2012, 1:17 PM)

When spending public money why limit bidding to union contractors? If they really can do the project cheaper then let them submit lower bids. If they cannot, then it is clearly vote buying in an election year. The taxpayers deserve better than this.

Comment from shane hirvi, (7/18/2012, 2:07 PM)

Although I think a "homer" alert should come with Tom's post I whole heartedly agree with his comments.

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