Going a bridge too far with unionized labor

September 26, 2000|By Michael Henderson

THE ESCALATING tension between Maryland and Virginia over the proposed $2.1 billion Woodrow Wilson Bridge project may have as much to do with ideology as it does with dollars and cents.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said that this, the largest public works project in the history of either state, should be built exclusively with union labor under a type of deal known as a Project Labor Agreement (PLA).

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, however, rejects the idea of a PLA; as chief executive of a right-to-work state, he is philosophically opposed to compulsory unionism. As a fiscal conservative, he has difficulty buying into a pact that could escalate costs by as much as 20 percent.

Maryland and Virginia each committed $200 million toward replacing the aging structure that connects the two states over the Potomac River with a 12-lane, twin-span bridge. The federal government has committed $900 million.

Maryland and Virginia officials are waiting for a firm commitment from the federal government that it will ante up the additional $800 million or so it would take to complete the project. The chances for such a commitment, once thought fairly good, are jeopardized by a Republican Congress that would not look favorably on a PLA in its own back yard.

Should the project receive its funding and then go over budget, the two states would pay an even steeper price. Governor Glendening has said he would agree to an 80-20 split between the federal government and Maryland and Virginia if there are cost overruns. That 20 percent, shared equally between the two states, would take away money from other badly needed transportation projects.

The use of PLAs has grown significantly since they broke on the scene in the early 1990s with the $2.6 billion Boston Central Artery/Tunnel, better known as the "Big Dig." In the case of the Big Dig, as in other PLAs, the building trades seek to become "the sole and exclusive bargaining representatives of all craft employees," according to the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

The unions, in turn, guarantee there "shall be no strikes, sympathy strikes, picketing, work stoppages, slowdowns, or other disruptive activity for any reason," the AFL-CIO says.

This language doesn't leave much room for ambiguity. And yet it's one promise the unions have difficulty keeping.

Despite a PLA between local building trades and state officials, the San Francisco Airport expansion project, for example, suffered through three strikes in the past year. Across San Francisco Bay, operating engineers violated their agreement when they struck Berths 55 and 56 at the port of Oakland. In Maine, where there is a PLA on the construction of a $220 million project to modernize the Bath shipbuilding facility, work came to a halt when union picketers blocked the entrance to the shipyard.

PLAs are troublesome for reasons other than for breaking the no-strike pledge.

In his study on the "Big Dig," Wharton Business School Professor Emeritus Herbert R. Northrup, wrote that PLAs increase the cost of construction, not because of differences in wages, but because they decrease competition. Mr. Northrup's reasoning is legitimized by the more than quadrupling of the original $2.6 billion estimated cost of the project, to $13 billion.

The unions contend that PLAs ensure a steady supply of labor and prevent out-of-state contractors from stealing work from local firms.

But the reality of the marketplace suggests a far different outcome. In an industry in which fewer than one of every five workers is represented by a union, PLAs practically necessitate the construction owner hire out-of-state contractors, if for no other reason than to meet the union-only requirement.

Is it Mr. Glendening's contention then that he will build the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on time and on budget by shutting out more than 80 percent of the available work force?

It's a rhetorical question, of course, and one with which the governor will not trouble himself. After all, he will be long gone from office by then and the prospect of snarled traffic, cost overruns and angry motorists will be someone else's problem.

In his five-plus years in office, Mr. Glendening has proven himself a tireless advocate for organized labor. His two most notable "accomplishments" in that field, organizing 45,000 state employees and expanding the state's prevailing wage law, rank among the most significant gains Maryland's labor movement has made in the past 35 years.

Should he prove successful in this, his latest, and perhaps most high-profile effort, Mr. Glendening will be well positioned for a role in a Gore administration should the opportunity present itself. After all, a strong endorsement from organized labor is a must for anyone who wants to work for a man who has pledged to build a bridge to the 21st century with union labor.

But for Maryland and Virginia taxpayers, a PLA on the Woodrow Wilson may render it one bridge too costly to cross.

Michael Henderson is executive director of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Baltimore Metro Chapter. The ABC is a pred- ominantly non-union organization.

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