The Connecticut Department of Transportation has continued to benefit from the use of Project Labor Agreements (PLA), a commonly used procurement method in the state.

Keith Brothers

Former Gov. Dannel Malloy directed the DOT to utilize a PLA for the I-84 Mixmaster project in Waterbury, which broke ground in June of 2018. This is a very large and complex project valued at over $330 million. And while the project is slated to complete in September of 2022, it has already garnered national recognition.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials gave the project the 2019 Operations Excellence Award in the Large Project category. They praised the project, offering that, “the operation and coordination on this project resulted in minimal delays and disruption to travelers by limiting the number of closures on I-84 – closing only at night – while reducing the roadway width during peak hours to help ensure the traveling public could travel throughout the project, all while completing construction a year ahead of schedule.”

Given the success of the Mixmaster, it is no surprise that DOT is planning to utilize a PLA on the Gold Star north-bound bridge project between New London and Groton. DOT is making a common-sense and fiscally sound decision to include a PLA in the contract for construction. It’s a win-win for the state.

Under a PLA, all contractors are required to abide by collective bargaining agreements to meet the needs of a specific project. Those agreements dictate wages and benefits, like health insurance and retirement plans. Other important aspects might include provisions for utilizing apprentices, local hiring goals, set-aside goals for Black and brown and women-owned businesses, and a commitment to utilize returning veterans through programs like “Helmets to Hardhats.” In short, PLAs ensure public and private owners can guarantee their tradesmen and tradeswomen are given career opportunities and not just a short-term job.

I was surprised by the Yankee Institute’s blog post from December 17  criticizing DOT for deciding to construct the north-bound Gold Star bridge with a PLA. They seemingly only included quotes from non-union management and never reached out to me or any other representative of the State Building Trades Council. It’s important to note that the Building Trades represent over 30,000 construction families in Connecticut. I very much doubt the Yankee Institute has a clear understanding what a PLA is or how the terms of one are negotiated.

The Yankee Institute’s blog post takes particular issue with DOT’s claim that a PLA provides for a safer work site. Yet, the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) issued a report in 2018 titled, ‘Union Effect on Safety Management and Safety Culture in the Construction Industry,’ which found that, “The results indicate that union firms reported better performance of safety management and safety culture than non-union firms… Moreover, union firms were more likely and frequently to offer and require general safety and health training, and OSHA 10-hour and 30-hour training to their employees.”

In their blog post, the Yankee Institute referenced an erroneous study published by another political think tank called the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI). The Boston Globe published an article on December 1, 2015 titled, ‘Suffolk University cuts ties with conservative research group’, which reported that BHI, “receives funding from private groups, including the conservative Koch Foundation…”

Opponents, like the Yankee Institute, use the old and tired argument that PLAs raise the cost of construction. Yet academic studies by UCLA, Cornell, and other leading institutions have consistently concluded that there is simply no evidence to back up this claim. UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education published a study in 2017 which found that PLA projects do not reduce the number of bidders, nor do they increase project costs.

If PLAs raised the cost of construction, then profit-oriented corporations wouldn’t consistently use them. General Dynamics Electric Boat signed a PLA for the $850 million expansion of their South Yard Assembly Building in Groton. The Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) built the $225 million Renewable Energy Power Plant in Plainfield using a PLA. The Mohegan Tribe signed a PLA to build their $80 million government center, and Ørsted signed a significant PLA for building their offshore wind turbines along the East Coast.

DOT is not the only public contracting authority to see a value in PLAs. The University of Connecticut, the Department of Administrative Services (DAS), and municipalities from every corner of the state have used PLAs for their large-scale construction.

While I welcome vigorous debates on how best to attract good-paying jobs to Connecticut, I expect those with opposing views to be honest brokers. The naysayers are grasping at straws, trying to undermine the use of a common and beneficial procurement method that protects the integrity of our state’s construction industry.

Let’s keep to the facts. PLAs are a tool to ensure the hiring of Connecticut’s workforce, and that our local workforce has good labor protections for them and their families. We applaud the state for continuing to recognize their value.

Keith Brothers is the Business Manager of the CT Laborers District Council and President of the Norwich-New London Building Trades Council.

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