Pawlenty order signals tougher anti-union stance

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Anti-union contractors won an important victory when Governor Tim Pawlenty signed an executive order that outlaws project labor agreements on publicly funded projects.

The executive order, which took effect Dec. 6, signals a more aggressive stance by anti-union contractors – and the length to which the Republican governor will go to appease these groups in his bid for re-election next year, union leaders and observers said.

“The Associated Builders & Contractors and other anti-union associations are right here, knocking on our door,” said Larry Casey, director of building trades programming for the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service. “They’ll be emboldened more, unless something happens to neutralize that.”

“Unfortunately the governor once again has allowed his agenda to be hijacked by a right-wing fringe group . . .” said Dick Anfang, president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council. “The governor should have respected the democratic process and let the Legislature decide whether project labor agreements benefit the State of Minnesota.”

Project labor agreements ban strikes and lockouts on construction projects and provide for a steady supply of skilled labor.

“Under these agreements projects are built on time and under budget,” Anfang said. “That is why they have been used to build major public works projects like the Hiawatha Light Rail Line, the Minnesota Department of Revenue Building and the Orville L. Freeman Office Building. All contractors have the opportunity to work under a project labor agreement, union and non-union alike.”

PLAs are one of two major tools for insuring quality construction, Casey said. The other is the prevailing wage requirement, which prevents contractors from undercutting the community standard for wages and benefits.

While both union and non-union contractors may bid on public construction done through PLAs, non-union contractors usually don’t, Casey noted, because they don’t want to pay their employees higher wages and benefits.

“A guy making $14 an hour might be getting $35 an hour” under a project labor agreement, Casey said. “The boss doesn’t want him to see that. That might get him thinking about joining a union.”

Statistics are not available on the number of state, county, municipal and school construction projects built in Minnesota under PLAs over the past several years, but the list includes many major projects, the Building Trades said. In addition those named above, the list includes the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the Minneapolis Convention Center and the Hennepin County Government Center.

Nationally, more than $77 billion in public and private construction has been built in the past 10 years using PLAs, according to the national Building & Construction Trades Department.

Across the country, the anti-union ABC has sought legislation to ban PLAs on publicly funded construction. A bill introduced in the 2003 session of the Minnesota Legislature failed to get out of committee. Where it is unable to achieve a ban legislatively, the ABC has sought executive orders like those issued by Pawlenty. In July, Mike Huckabee, the Republican governor of Arkansas, signed a similar order.

Pawlenty’s action puts him firmly in lockstep with Republican President George W. Bush, noted Anfang. In one of his first actions as president in 2001, Bush banned PLAs on all federally funded construction.

To counter these bans, union contractors and Building Trades unions need to be more proactive in selling themselves, Casey said, by emphasizing their training, skills, high productivity and quality work.

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