For years Westchester County Assemblywoman Sandy Galef has been trying to reform the state Wicks Law, which runs up the cost of public works projects by requiring that different parts of the project be bid separately, but has gotten nowhere because of union opposition.
Now, apparently on the theory that if you can’t beat them, capitulate to them, she is holding a roundtable next week to discuss an alternative that will allow school districts, governments and other bodies undertaking public construction projects to circumvent the Wicks Law. The alternative, called a “project labor agreement” (PLA), is supposed to save money, but what it really does is significantly drive up the cost of these projects by eliminating non-union competition and restricting the work to trade unions.
In her press release announcing the roundtable, Galef says of PLAs, “These have been a success in saving money and increasing work productivity, which inherently comes with utilizing PLAs, as can be seen with the Tappan Zee Bridge Project, estimated to save $452 million because of the PLA.”
But the savings — whether the project is the Tappan Zee Bridge, the rebuilt Crown Point Bridge, a state Department of Transportation highway project in Orange County, Clifton Park Library, Glendale Home (all of which have used or will use PLAs) — are neither real nor inherent. They come mostly from “labor peace,” which is the projected avoided costs of strikes, sabotage or other disruptions if unions don’t get the job.
But New York state, especially upstate, hasn’t had problems with labor unrest in a long time. And you shouldn’t be giving in to blackmail by putting a price tag on it, a price tag that is then used to justify a deal to shut out other, lower bidders. For instance, in the Orange County highway project, after changing the rules to include a PLA in the middle of the bidding process, the DOT awarded a contract to a union contractor that was $4.5 million higher than the lowest bidder, a non-union shop.
Galef has at least invited a critic of PLAs, Associated General Contractors President Michael Elmendorf, so roundtable participants will have a chance to hear the other side as well. With two union representatives and various officials who claim to have saved money with PLAs present, Elmendorf will be outnumbered. But he will have the better argument.