Big Labor bosses seeking protection from non-union competition on government construction jobs had a two-front fight going on last week in both Washington, D.C., and Lansing. Votes to determine the fate of project labor agreements occurred in both the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and the GOP-dominated Michigan Senate. When it was all over, a total of 34 Republican lawmakers from Michigan had cast votes on these legislative battlefields, and just one voted on the side of the labor unions to protect PLAs: Congressman Thad McCotter, R-Livonia.
“A PLA is little more than a mechanism to put non-union construction companies at an unfair disadvantage, and steer government work to unions,” said Paul Kersey, director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “If a company wants to bid on a contract, it has to have an agreement with the local unions. Obviously that puts non-union companies in a difficult position.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 14 percent of the U.S. construction workforce is unionized.
PLA’s “drive up the cost of construction projects by reducing competition and implementing the inefficient "union-only way" of doing business,” says the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, a trade association for “merit shop,” or non-union, contractors. ABC also notes that 75 percent of the construction workforce in Michigan does not choose to belong to a union and that Michigan taxpayers pay up to 20 percent more for government construction costs because of PLAs.
On Thursday, June 16, the Michigan Senate voted 26-12 in favor of Senate Bill 165. According to a news release from the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. John Moolenaar of Midland, the proposal would prohibit PLAs in “all public construction contracts using tax dollars.”
The vote was strictly along party lines, with all 26 members of the GOP Senate supermajority voting for the bill and all 12 Senate Democrats voting against.
“Members of the Senate are sending a clear message that they realize that it’s wrong to pick winners and losers based on status instead of merit,” said ABC of Michigan President Chris Fisher in a news release after the vote. “Anti-competitive, government-mandated PLAs are special interest kickback schemes that prevent open, fair and competitive bidding on construction projects.”
ABC expects that the bill will win quick approval in the Michigan House and move to the governor for his signature. But for federal construction projects, it was a different story last week in the GOP-controlled U.S. House.
A 2009 executive order issued by President Obama directs that PLAs be used for federal construction projects. Congressional Republican budget writers are opposed to this policy and last month inserted an exception to it into a budget that spends money on military construction projects, effectively stating that PLAs could not apply to projects covered by that budget.
This was done in a committee, but the committee’s work would not survive. When the military construction spending bill went to the full House for approval last week, another Republican — Congressman Steve LaTourette of Ohio — submitted a proposal to undo the work of his fellow Republicans on the budget committee. He introduced an amendment to put the president’s PLA requirement back into the legislation.
While 202 Republicans did not vote for LaTourette’s amendment, 26 other Republicans did vote with him to reinstate the President’s policy requiring PLAs. With all but one of the Democrats in the chamber voting with Big Labor to support the LaTourette amendment, it succeeded by just a single vote: 204-203. If any of the 27 Republicans voting for the bill had changed their vote or not voted, the amendment would have failed and the president’s PLA requirement would not have applied to this budget bill.
One of the 27 was Congressman McCotter. He did not respond to an email seeking comment regarding his vote.
This is the second time this year that Rep. McCotter has been on the deciding edge of a vote that promoted PLAs on government projects. In February, another amendment to a different budget would have banned the use of PLAs on federal construction projects. That proposal failed on a 210-210 tie vote. Once again, there were 26 Republicans — including McCotter — standing with Democrats to defend the president’s policy of keeping the PLA requirement in place.
In addition to McCotter, fellow Michigan Republican Candice Miller of Harrison Township also voted with Democrats to protect PLAs during the February amendment. However, on this most recent vote in June, Rep. Miller sided with the majority of Republicans and in opposition to PLAs.
(Michigan Capitol Confidential also reported on that earlier PLA vote. See: “Costly Union Worker Special Favor Barely Survives With Help of Two Michigan Republicans.”)
The Competitive Enterprise Institute maintains a “Labor Scorecard,” which it calls the “only real time congressional voting scorecard devoted to analyzing Congress’ labor record from a free-market perspective.”
With the exceptions of Reps. Miller and McCotter, every Republican member of the Michigan delegation currently receives a C+ grade or better on the Labor Scorecard, with three getting perfect scores. Rep. Miller’s grade is a D+, with 44 percent, and Rep. McCotter is scored as a D, with 22 percent. All of the Democrats score zero, having voted each time against what CEI calls the “pro worker” position.
One Republican member of the Michigan delegation with a perfect score is Congressman Bill Huizenga of Zeeland, but he was not in the chamber to cast a vote last week on the PLA matter. When contacted by Michigan Capitol Confidential about the absence, Huizenga’s office stated that he was detained by a meeting with constituents during the vote, but that he would have remained consistent with his earlier position as an opponent of the president’s PLA policy.
Shortly after the vote, he also entered a statement into the Congressional Record making this point. Nine other Republicans missed this vote. Like Huizenga, Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota also voted against PLAs in February but missed the vote last week. A presidential candidate, she missed the vote because she was attending a debate.
"Project Labor Agreements drive up the cost of government contracts, waste taxpayer dollars and limit competition,” said a Huizenga statement released to Michigan Capitol Confidential last week. “PLAs are special interest schemes that cost jobs and use antiquated rules that provide no benefit to the general public.”