In February, President Biden signed an executive order that will substantially strengthen the use of project labor agreements on federal construction projects. The order requires PLAs on directly funded large-scale projects with contracts of $35 million or more. All contractors and subcontractors on the project will be required to participate in the PLA.
This new executive order goes beyond a similar 2009 EO issued by the Obama administration, which permitted federal agencies to use PLAs on a project-by-project basis, but didn’t require them. President Biden’s executive order also expands the scope of applicable projects to include reconstruction and modernization projects for buildings, highways and other federal property. This is a significant addition, since many upcoming projects under the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill will involve revitalizing and modernizing existing U.S. roads, bridges and water lines.
“With this executive order, the Biden administration is continuing to send the message that using union labor is the right choice for our economy, for getting projects done on time and for worker safety,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “The proud men and women of LIUNA are up to the task and ready to get to work.”
The Benefits of Projects Labor Agreements
Project labor agreements are collective bargaining agreements between unions and contractors that govern project terms and conditions for all workers – both union and nonunion. Under PLAs, workers are paid strong, prevailing wages throughout the project and a steady source of trained, skilled workers helps ensure projects are completed safely, on time and on budget. PLAs also often include provisions such as local hire requirements to ensure projects benefit the surrounding community.
As an example, consider this comparison of two projects in the Washington, DC metro area:
Operating under a PLA, Phase I of the [Dulles Metrorail] project was … not plagued by the problems that have burdened other large non-PLA projects in the region. For example, the nearby Springfield Interchange – originally a $200 million project – wound up costing taxpayers nearly 300 percent more, five workers died during construction and only legal action against a contractor gave it a chance of finishing on time. By contrast, the PLA on the Dulles Metrorail kept the project on time and on budget – and without a single worksite death or lost time due to accidents because workers were skilled and well-trained.
Why Operating Under PLAs Increases Safety on Projects
Support for PLAs often focuses on the clear economic and business benefits for owners and communities, but the positive outcomes for worker safety and health shouldn’t be ignored either. Using union labor on these projects means workers show up with the skills and safety training to do the job safely. Study after study has found that the union safety advantage is real, with union construction projects generally having a superior safety record compared to non-union projects.
In addition to governing wages and benefits, PLAs can also spell out the health and safety requirements specific to the project. This leads to better working conditions by requiring both contractors and workers to comply with project safety rules. Provisions could mandate all contractors on site have a written, site-specific safety and health program or meet certain benchmarks for recordable injury and illness rates or experience modification rate (EMR).
Large union construction firms can meet these requirements because they tend to have strong safety management programs already in place. Because PLAs cover all contractors on a project, including smaller subcontractors or non-union contractors, these firms have to meet the same safety standards as well. This levels the playing field by ensuring the same commitment to safety across the entire site. This is important on large projects, where it’s common for multiple crafts and multiple contractors to be working together.
PLAs can bring structure and stability to large construction projects. In addition to strengthening safety and health, PLAs help ensure compliance with equal employment opportunity and labor standards. These agreements open new career opportunities for women, minority groups, veterans and other under-represented populations.
A New Standard for Federal Construction Contracting
In addition to mandating PLAs for projects over $35 million, President Biden’s executive order also gives federal agencies the leeway to use PLAs on projects below this threshold. This option should create additional opportunities for LIUNA District Councils, Local Unions and signatory contractors to advocate for bringing the benefits of PLAs to smaller federal construction projects as well.
With the fatality rate for construction laborers the highest it’s been in over a decade and the clear safety and health benefits of PLAs, we should be taking steps to bring PLAs to as many projects as possible.