Michael Theriault headshot

Our meeting minutes published monthly in this newspaper have recently reported on negotiation of several project labor agreements, or PLAs.

We are at one point or another – from preliminary discussion through negotiation to collection of final signatures – of working out a good dozen. Together these dozen PLAs may rule billions of dollars and tens of thousands of person-years of work. Some are on projects that may last thirty years, and so their reach may be truly generational.

Yet when I speak to Building Trades rank-and-filers, I hear sometimes that, while they have been taught to value PLAs, they don’t understand just what PLAs are.

Here, then, is a primer.

The basis of every PLA is a fundamental exchange: On a specific project or set of projects, Unions commit not to engage in activities that stop work, such as strikes or picketing; Construction employers commit (in private sector PLAs) that all work will be performed by union-signatory contractors with their unionized workforce, or public agencies commit (in public-sector PLAs) that all work will be performed under the terms and conditions of union agreements, even if by non-union contractors. In both private- and public-sector PLAs, contractors are barred from locking out workers.

For this exchange to function, PLAs must establish dispute resolution procedures with binding arbitration. Most PLAs here have three distinct procedures, one for disputes concerning work stoppages, one for disputes arising from other PLA provisions, and one for jurisdictional disputes between unions.

Where PLA provisions conflict with our master agreements, the PLA prevails.

Endless variations on these basic features are possible. Negotiations consist of working toward agreement on these variations.

In public-sector PLAs, for example, where law requires that non-union contractors be able to bid on and obtain work, one subject of negotiation is commonly how many of their present employees – or “core employees” – these contractors can use and in what proportion and order they must be intermingled with workers hired from our halls.

Another common subject of negotiation is just what work a PLA will actually cover. What, say, is the dividing line for coverage of warranty work?

And both private- and public-sector PLA negotiations generally involve a push-and-pull on how much the provisions of our master agreements will govern, and how much the PLA will regularize and supersede them. Will start times vary by craft according to master agreements, or will common start times be established? Will there be a project-wide substance abuse testing program, or will master agreements say who is tested and how? And so on....

PLAs can also address social goals. The San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education wanted mandatory local hire in its contracting but could achieve this legally only through a PLA, and so our most recent PLA contains functional provisions establishing it. We in turn wanted the District’s reborn shop classes to adapt the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum, a pre-apprenticeship program approved by almost all our Internationals; the PLA requires it.

We believe and preach that PLAs offer real advantages in both public and private contracting. Even among us, though, they are not completely popular. In limiting strikes, they limit also their threat as leverage in negotiation of master agreements or their use when negotiation fails, and they risk discord between members continuing to work under PLAs and striking members walking picket lines elsewhere. Our more conservative signatory contractors chafe under their occasional social requirements.

The most concerted challenge to PLAs, however, comes from such anti-union organizations as the Associated Builders and Contractors. They claim to politicians and public agencies that PLAs increase contracting costs by reducing the number of bidders, because PLAs supposedly exclude non-union contractors.

Our experience here contradicts this.

Several projects under an earlier School District bond measure had already been awarded by the time we completed its PLA and so were not covered. This was at the recession’s start in 2008; bids on those first projects were about twenty percent under estimates. When the PLA took effect the number of bidders remained about the same, but with some new names, and bids continued to come in at about twenty percent under estimates.

The vast majority of projects under our PLA with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission for the Water System Improvement Program (WSIPLA) were likewise bid under estimates and the work completed under budget. External causes could be identified for the few exceptions, such as the discovery of a fault line and an ancient landslide in excavation for replacement of Calaveras Dam.

Non-union contractors successfully obtained and performed work under both PLAs, while intermingling “core employees” and our members.

We recently saw additional metrics demonstrating the WSIPLA’s worth: More than seven million person-hours of work performed with no interruption by labor conflicts, a lost-time accident rate forty percent of the national average, and a substance abuse test non-negative (failure) rate about one-quarter the national average.

Far from increasing costs, the WSIPLA provided results the City could take to the bank.

Organized Labor


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