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Central Pa. lawmakers renew bid to ban project labor agreements

In a move they say would bring down costs on public construction projects, two Republican lawmakers from Central Pennsylvania want to end the use of so-called project labor agreements in the commonwealth.

Lancaster County Sen. Scott Martin, a former county commissioner, this week introduced Senate Bill 881 to prohibit the agreements, known as PLAs. Cumberland County Rep. Stephen Bloom plans to introduce a companion bill in the House.

PLAs have a long history in the U.S. and were originally tied to long-term government projects as a way to ensure projects were completed on time and on budget.

But the two midstate lawmakers say PLAs drive up costs, often by requiring the use of union labor, and they discriminate against the roughly 80 percent of state construction workers who are not union members by excluding their firms from bidding on public construction jobs.

The Republican lawmakers argue that many non-union companies are capable of handling government-funded construction projects, often at lower costs than union contractors.

Banning the agreements would “level the playing field” for local construction jobs, Bloom said.

The legislative proposals would make it illegal for a public body to consider the union status of an employer’s workforce in its selection process for awarding a construction contract.

“If non-union companies can perform the same quality of work at a lower cost to taxpayers, then they should be given that opportunity, especially when that work can be performed by a local company that creates jobs in the community where the project is being completed,” Martin said.

But union advocates, including the liberal-leaning Keystone Research Center, counter that quality would suffer if PLAs are banned in Pennsylvania. The primary focus would be on the lowest price and less on well-trained, skilled people.

Lower-wage jobs are often tied to less-skilled workers, which can also lead to more accidents on job sites, said Stephen Herzenberg, the center’s executive director. “If you want to drive wages down so people don’t want to do the work anymore, you should implement the legislative proposals that the senator and representative are champions for.”

PLAs are a tool that can help support high-quality construction, he said. 

However, nearly two dozen states already restrict the use of government-mandated PLAs. The Keystone Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., a construction trade association, hopes Pennsylvania will soon be next.

“We’re very pleased to see such a strong effort at combating blatant discrimination with taxpayer dollars,” said Brent Sailhamer, ABC Keystone’s director of government affairs.

He noted that nearly half of the Senate Republican caucus has signed on to support Martin’s bill in the Senate. He also cited strong co-sponsorship support for Bloom’s forthcoming bill. “It’s a strong step in the right direction.”

Bloom previously proposed a bill in 2014, while Martin led efforts to ban PLAs in Lancaster County in 2011. Similar bills have surfaced over the years in the General Assembly but have not become law.

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