With a deep bow to the construction trade unions and the unmistakable sound of a moist kiss, the state comptroller has approved a contract for a highway project that will cost the taxpayers of New York $4.5 million more than necessary.
The project is the reconstruction of an interchange on Route 17 in Orange County. The low bidder was Lancaster Development, based in Schoharie County, at $67.8 million. The next-lowest bidder was Servidone/B. Anthony Construction of Castleton, at $72.3 million.
After six months of fiddling, finagling and two-stepping, the comptroller, in cahoots with the Department of Transportation, contrived to award the contract to Servidone/B. Anthony.
How can he do that?
By the device of what is called a “project labor agreement,” which is an opaque name for what is essentially a deal restricting the work to trade unions.
Lancaster Development is a non-union shop. Servidone/B. Anthony is a union shop.
After the project had been put out to bid last April, the Department of Transportation rejiggered the offering to include the union-only requirement, and that put Lancaster Development out of the running.
The company protested, but to no avail, and now the more expensive contract has been awarded.
Never mind that 75 percent of the construction workforce in New York is non-union, meaning that most workers are frozen out. The unions have the clout, and that’s that.
Never mind also that non-union shops engaged in public works must pay union wages, so there is no competitive advantage or disadvantage in that department. Even at equal wages, unions cannot compete mano a mano but must rely on these bullying “project labor agreements” to win the work.
Bullying because the hilarious justification for these union-only deals is that they ensure labor peace, meaning if the unions get the work they won’t strike. (Thanks a lot!)
The Department of Transportation or the comptroller does an analysis of how much such labor peace is worth and concludes that it’s a good deal for the state.
Mark Galasso, head of Lancaster Development, tells me he is still pursuing a challenge in the courts, which he filed earlier, and of course I wish him the best, but I believe the odds are against him. The political odds, that is.
He says about 50 of his workers would have been laid off except that in preparation for this turn of events he has been using them on double shifts on other jobs, so only about 20 workers will be left without work.
That is, 20 heavy-equipment operators, truck drivers, laborers can’t get a job paid for by their own tax money because they don’t belong to a trade union, even though they can do the job more efficiently while being paid the same high wages as the union members.
The state is “just burning $4.5 million,” Galasso says. “The unions have the political power, but there is no benefit to the taxpayer.”
So it appears.
I await with great eagerness the vote by the PEF membership on the new, revised contract that was recently approved by the union leadership and by the governor’s office. I think there will be some lessons in psychology in it.
I refer to a proposed contract for the 56,000 members of the white-collar Public Employees Federation, similar to the contract that was already ratified by the larger, blue-collar Civil Service Employees Association.
A fairly tough contract by the generous standards of the state — three years with no raises plus bigger contributions to health insurance. Ouch! Except that all the step increases and longevity bonuses remain in place, as well as the usual pension benefits.
Never mind the minutiae. The interesting thing is this: If the PEF membership rejects this deal, 3,496 of the members will lose their jobs, since Gov. Cuomo insists on equivalent budget savings, but the remaining 52,500 or so will keep the superior benefits of the old contract, since state law provides that an old contract remains in effect when there is no agreement on a new one.
The membership, you may remember, already rejected one proposed new contract, by a vote of 19,629 to 16,906. The one they’re going to vote on now is only slightly different. It will run for four years rather than five, and it will eventually reimburse members for compulsory furlough days, though at a cost of the $1,000 bonuses that would otherwise be paid.
But the situation is a lot different. After the first rejection, the governor sent out the promised 3,496 layoff notices, so this time all members know for a certainty whether or not their jobs are secure.
Obviously those on the hit list will vote to approve the contract, hoping to keep their jobs.
But what about the great majority whose jobs are secure? Will they be willing to make a small sacrifice in the cost of their health insurance in order to protect the jobs of their less fortunate colleagues? Or will they dig in and say, “No way”?
“The ratification of this agreement will demonstrate that our members are willing to sacrifice to save the jobs of 3,496 of their coworkers and preserve the level of service to taxpayers,” says PEF President Ken Brynien, hopefully.
We’ll see. It looks to me like a contest between pure selfishness and slight generosity, which is why I say there will be some lessons in psychology to be learned.
Voting by mail is going on now, and the final count is scheduled for Nov. 3. I can’t wait.