​Viewpoint: Labor agreements should include union and non-union alike

Boston Business Journal (January 24, 2019) - No one expects government to be perfect, but it’s not too much to expect our leaders to learn from clear mistakes. One such mistake was the decision by the UMass Building Authority to build UMass Boston’s first dormitory — and execute the campus’ entire $750 million master plan — under an agreement that intentionally limited competition by stipulating that construction unions be the “sole and exclusive” source of jobsite labor for all construction.

There’s not much we can do now about elevators that fell abruptly, water shooting from toilets, rooms that were like furnaces and frosty showers that have plagued $120 million dorm since it opened. But going forward, we can reduce costs and improve quality by encouraging all qualified contractors to bid on public projects by ensuring that competition-limiting project labor agreements are not a part of any future UMass construction projects.  
If UMass is to execute the nearly $7 billion capital plan its trustees have adopted for fiscal years 2015 to 2019, not spending any more than necessary on construction is critical, especially since a significant portion of the plan remains unfunded and previous UMass expansions already resulted in the university’s debt nearly tripling between 2005 and 2016. Reducing the bidding pool by requiring exclusively union labor would all but ensure that the university pays more than it needs to.

According to U.S. government data analyzed by unionstats.com, more than 83 percent of Massachusetts construction workers are not union members. You don’t have to be an economist to know that excluding most of the market results in higher costs. 

Research documenting the cost of PLAs could fill an Amazon warehouse. A 2010 study from New Jersey’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development placed the PLA premium at more than 30 percent and also found that the projects took 28 percent longer than those built using open competition.

Some favor PLAs because they say the agreements ensure that workers earn fair wages. But public construction projects like those at UMass are already covered by state and federal prevailing wage laws that guarantee union-scale wages for all workers, regardless of labor affiliation.

Massachusetts has rigorous processes in place to screen out unqualified bidders on public construction projects. Once that’s done, allowing all qualified contractors, union and non-union, to compete for work saves money and provides building owners with more options if contractors don’t perform well.

By eschewing future project labor agreements, UMass officials would demonstrate the ability to learn from experience and give Massachusetts residents a measure of accountability they have a right to expect.