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Virginia Rail Fight over Metrorail PLAs Blatant Politics

The second phase of the Silver Line Metrorail project to Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia was nearly ready to move—but now it’s mired in a lot of noise over the proposed inclusion of a project labor agreement (PLA)—even though a PLA was used successfully on the first phase. Project labor agreements are pre-hire agreements between labor and management that require all construction jobs be filled by local workers, include diversity requirements, establish wages and work rules covering overtime, working hours and dispute resolution and ensure safety guidelines on the jobsite are enforced.

Unfortunately, most of what is being reported about PLAs is erroneous and grounded in ideological and blatant political bias. 

That is, until Steven Pearlstein at The Washington Post had the temerity to call BS on the whole manufactured controversy surrounding the Silver Line PLA. As Pearlstein rightly observed:

What’s so silly about this controversy is that there are only a dozen firms that are big and experienced enough to manage a transit project of this size and complexity, and all of them are giant national and international firms that are either union shops or have long since learned to operate in both union and nonunion environments. The opportunity for local contractors is to bid on subcontracts that are explicitly not required to sign on to project labor agreements. And yet in Phase 1, 80 percent of the nonunion subs have done so voluntarily.

So what are we arguing about here? Politics. Ideology. Certainly nothing that is worth risking the most important economic development project in the region.

So, what gives, then?  Well, as Pearlstein aptly puts it, the controversy has been manufactured by the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), and its conservative ideological allies in Virginia. The ABC is a trade association based in Alexandria, Va., and is unique among construction industry trade associations in that its national agenda, like that of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), is primarily ideological and anti-union, rather than focused on construction-related issues.

In fact, a cursory review of the ABC's membership shows the organization represents only 1 percent of all licensed contractors in the commonwealth of Virginia. And more remarkable is the fact that within its Virginia membership, fewer than 60 percent of the ABC's members are even involved in construction at all!

As Pearlstein notes, there was not one shred of controversy involving the PLA on Phase I of this project. It only became an issue when the ABC "made common cause with the ideological zealots of the Republican Party who are constantly on the lookout for any opportunity to destroy the labor movement." 

These conservative zealots apparently have short memories, too. They fail to recall the calamities involved with the last two major infrastructure projects initiated in Virginia without the benefit of a PLA. There was the Springfield, Va., highway interchange project that Virginia officials claimed would cost $241 million—only to see that figure exceed $670 million, with three deaths on the job in a span of nine months.

A similar tale occurred with the Wilson Bridge project. The project was divided into three separate contracts. The Maryland and drawbridge sections of the bridge were constructed under a project labor agreements. The Virginia section was not. The Maryland and drawbridge sections were ready to open six months ahead of schedule—while the Virginia section was behind schedule and over budget.

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