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State of the Unions: Project labor agreements

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Project labor agreements — project-specific collective bargaining agreements established before work starts — have a long history in America. Originally, they were agreements between labor and government for work on huge projects.

“When government was building something, a long-term project like a dam, something that would take millions of man hours that will span three, four or five years — something tremendously complex — project labor agreements came about as a way to manage the projects,” said Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center. “It was done to make sure everyone's interests were tightly aligned.”

They have since evolved to include smaller projects, such as roads and schools, and Price said private industry sometimes uses them, too, to better ensure a project is completed on time and on budget.

But Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland, who has introduced legislation to end use of such agreements, said the practice eliminates competition and only serves to benefit labor unions.

“It is the guaranteed flow of unionized contracts to the exclusion of non-union contractors,” he said.

He said they discriminate against 80 percent of state construction workers who are not union members by excluding them from bidding on public construction jobs.

Price said those numbers are exaggerated. What's more, some unions aren't in favor of such agreements.

“Typically they involve a no-strike clause,” he said. “That's why private industry would hang on to it: It ensures the project proceeds smoothly and ends on time. A lot of (union) folks worry that they are too concessionary because they are giving up benefits for certain work.”

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