Labor deal for bridge threatened

Bush weighs banning pro-union pacts on federally funded jobs

Potomac span in question

Order would overturn governor's agreement on building project

January 31, 2001|By Greg Garland and David L. Greene | Greg Garland and David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

A deal that Gov. Parris N. Glendening struck to impose pro-union work rules on a huge bridge-building project appears on the verge of unraveling.

President George W. Bush is considering signing an executive order that would prohibit the use of project labor agreements, or PLAs, on federally funded construction jobs, according to sources familiar with the issue.

Such an action could block the PLA that Glendening ordered for the $2.2 billion Wilson bridge replacement project, and thereby open the job to competition involving more nonunion contractors.

Replacing the bridge across the Potomac River from Oxon Hill to Alexandria, Va., is one of the largest construction projects in Maryland history.

Virginia's Republican governor and other elected GOP officials from the region, supported by contractor groups, have been urging Bush to step in and overturn the Glendening administration's PLA decision.

Opponents say PLAs are unfair to nonunion contractors, stifle competition and increase costs; supporters say PLAs bring stability to big construction jobs by setting clear work rules and prohibiting strikes.

White House officials would not say when - or if - Bush would sign an executive order ending project labor agreements. "If we have any decisions, once they are made, we'll announce them," said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan.

But local Republican leaders say they have no doubt Bush will sign the order.

"I'm extremely confident that the Bush administration will insert itself and reject the PLA agreement," said Richard E. Hug, who was Bush's campaign finance chairman in Maryland. "Philosophically, he is against these kinds of things where you limit competition."

Hug is acting chairman of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, a conservative business group, and is among area Republicans who have urged Bush to overturn Glendening's PLA decision.

Hug, who raised $6 million for Bush and the Republican National Committee in the past two years, noted that the Federal Highway Administration has not yet approved Maryland's PLA proposal and could reject it if instructed to do so.

A spokesman for the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department in Washington - which supported Maryland's PLA - said he, too, believes Bush will sign the proposed executive order.

The spokesman, Ray Abernathy, said it is a way for Bush to reward contracting groups that supported his presidential campaign.

Abernathy said the proposed executive order is one of three affecting labor unions that were drafted at the White House and then circulated among agencies for comment. All are adverse to the interests of labor unions, he said.

Union officials in Washington obtained copies and sent them to unions in other states, he said. "This has enraged building trades unions all over this country," Abernathy said.

If Bush signs the executive order banning PLAs, he will be restoring a policy that had been in place during his father's administration. The elder Bush issued an executive order in 1992 banning the use of PLAs on federally funded construction projects.

President Bill Clinton revoked that order in 1993. In 1997, Clinton issued a memorandum encouraging the use of PLAs on federally funded projects costing $5 million or more.

Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said he could not speculate on how a decision to eliminate PLAs might affect the timetable for the Wilson project.

"Regardless of what happens, it's important for everyone to keep their eye on the ultimate goal, which is building this bridge on time and on budget for the region," Cahalan said. "We'll work with anyone and everyone on this goal."

The Glendening administration announced Jan. 5 that it had negotiated the terms of a PLA on the Wilson bridge replacement project. The terms required all contractors to follow union work rules.

State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari defended the agreement, describing it as a "compromise that best serves the citizens of Maryland and the region." But contractor groups complained that it was a one-sided agreement in favor of labor unions that would cost Maryland taxpayers.

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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