Unionizing a costly bridge

Potomac crossing: Glendening pushes pro-union work rules that could endanger $700 million.

September 20, 2000

GOV. PARRIS N. Glendening could be jeopardizing a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River by seeking pro-union work rules on this $2 billion project.

The Glendening proposal has enflamed passions in Virginia, a right-to-work state that is splitting $400 million in bridge-replacement costs with Maryland. Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III has criticized Mr. Glendening and warned that his state won't pay added expenses that could come with the work rules.

There's a bigger concern, though. Funding for a new Wilson Bridge is at least $700 million short. Maryland and Virginia want Congress to come up with the extra cash, on top of the $900 million already appropriated.

But if Maryland imposes a Project Labor Agreement, requiring the use of union labor on its part of the bridge, a skeptical Republican Congress would have a ready excuse for a "no" vote.

Should Maryland be alienating both Viriginia and Congress? Will Maryland taxpayers have to fork over the remaining $700 million?

Few federal projects have included Project Labor Agreements to avoid strikes. But now the Clinton administration has "strongly encouraged" agencies to implement them.

That wouldn't make sense in Maryland, where 85 percent of highway work is already handled by non-union companies. A PLA could effectively exclude those companies from winning Wilson Bridge contracts, giving out-of-state contractors a bonanza.

A few big Maryland projects -- the Fort McHenry Tunnel and Ravens Stadium -- were built with dispute resolution clauses, known as labor stabilization agreements, to minimize work stoppages. But that's a far cry from a union-only mandate.

Mr. Glendening might win kudos from labor unions for taking this stance, and from a future Gore administration in Washington.

But he may be creating new barriers for Maryland in Congress, and in dealing with Governor Gilmore. That's too hefty a price for buying labor peace.

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