Senate sends project labor agreement bill to the House

The state Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure late Wednesday guaranteeing communities can negotiate working conditions with labor unions before public projects are put out to bid.

The measure allowing so-called "project labor agreements," spurred in part by a legal battle over school construction work in Hartford, passed 32-3 and now heads to the House of Representatives.

"It's one of the only vehicles in the construction industry that can create local employment and local support," Ed Reilly, president of the Hartford Building Trades Council, said after the vote.

The legislation allows -- but does not require -- municipalities to negotiate with unions and set the terms and conditions of public projects before any bids are awarded. It stipulates that companies unwilling to accept the terms of a project labor agreement, or PLA, are deemed ineligible for a contract award.

These agreements enable cities and towns to ensure that public dollars provide construction jobs for local residents, minorities, veterans or any other groups agreed upon in negotiations, added David Roche, president of the Connecticut Building Trades Council. PLA's also can be used to ensure minimum standards are set for other benefits and working conditions.

Tuesday's debate came four months after the state Supreme Court ruled Electrical Contractors Inc. could challenge a PLA reached between Hartford and construction trades on grounds that they violate the state antitrust laws. The firm, which won bids to work on two city schools but challenged the city's right to enforce a PLA, originally lost at the Superior Court level.

The measure enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the Senate, and lawmakers from both parties said keeping such agreements optional was key.

"It's done only if it's in the community's best interests," said Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee.

Another supporter, Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, said project labor agreements "have become one of the hot topics" of debate in his town, "but there's nothing coercive about the legislation."

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was mayor of Stamford from 1995 through 2009, issued a statement supporting the legislation shortly after the Senate debate closed.

"At a time when too many people in our state are still searching for gainful employment, project labor agreements ensure that we have the best trained workforce in place for our more important projects," the governor wrote. "Contrary to some of the assertions opponents of project labor agreements make, this is not another unfunded government mandate.  All this bill does is give municipalities the option of entering into a project labor agreement if they choose to do so, without the added risk of costly litigation.  It's just a common sense measure, one that will ensure that the hardworking men and women in the building trades can find employment that will support their families."

Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, one of three Republicans in the Democratic-controlled Senate who voted against the bill, said he fears such agreements will drive up municipal construction costs while Connecticut's economy continues to struggle.

"The more qualified companies that are eligible to bid on a job, the better deal towns are likely to get," he said, adding that companies' reluctance to deal with these agreements will lead some to pass on projects connected with them. "It's hard enough for towns to save money right now."



Democrats: 21 yes, 0 no, 1 absent. Republicans: 11 yes, 3 no, 0 absent.