Update: On February 4, 2022, President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order requiring the use of PLAs on federal construction projects for which the total estimated cost is $35 million or more.
As many construction contractors are aware, the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, effective on November 15, 2021, includes significant monies for transportation, roads, bridges, rail, and other infrastructure construction. President Biden has encouraged public governmental agencies to use project labor agreements (PLAs) on these government-funded infrastructure projects.
What is a PLA?
A PLA requires that all contractors and subcontractors working on the project, whether union or non-union, sign and be bound by a PLA with the local building and construction trade council for work performed on the project. Members of a building and construction trades council include most labor unions in the construction industry including the operating engineers union, the carpenters union, and the laborers union. PLAs are intended to cover the period during which the public project is under construction and ends when the project ends. PLAs result from a public agency including a requirement for a PLA in a construction project’s bid specifications.
For projects which require a PLA, the contractor must sign the PLA and agree to be subject to specified provisions in the collective bargaining agreement of the union(s) which traditionally represent the classification of employees employed by the contractor. For example, the operating engineers’ local union would traditionally represent heavy equipment operators and in this case, an excavating subcontractor would be subject to the wage and benefit provisions of the local operating engineers’ collective bargaining agreement. Many public agencies have been requiring PLAs for years, but we can expect to see an increase in the number of projects that will require a PLA in light of the current political environment. One advantage to public agencies is that a PLA promises that none of the union members of the local building and construction trades council will engage in a strike during the project. Obviously, this commitment from the unions avoids the delays and disruption that a strike can cause to a project.
Today, nearly 87% of the construction industry is non-union. A PLA, which covers both union and non-union contractors, subjects the non-union contractors to many of the requirements of an applicable union collective bargaining agreement. The contractor or subcontractor is not required to sign the actual collective bargaining agreement; however, the PLA makes the contractor/subcontractor subject to certain provisions of a collective bargaining agreement, such as wages and benefits.
Why Should a Contractor or Subcontractor Care?
Although many non-union contractors believe that a PLA is not something they need to be concerned about, the fact is that if a non-union contractor wants to work on a public project, they should expect that they may be required to sign a PLA. Contractors who bid and are awarded work on a public job may not always be aware that the job is going to be governed by a PLA.
Among other things, a PLA requires the contractor to agree to pay the applicable union wages, to contribute to union fringe funds, to use a union hiring hall, and to comply with both governmental and union rules on payroll and recordkeeping. Employees of a non-union contractor cannot be required to pay full union dues and become union members, but they can be required to pay a monthly agency fee to the union in lieu of union dues. Union hiring halls are prohibited from discriminating between union and non-union members when referring employees to projects but, obviously, it is not always easy to identify when discrimination occurs.
Minority and women affirmative action goals, as well as requirements that a percentage of subcontractors be Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs), can conflict with a contractor’s obligation to hire from a union hiring hall. For many contractors and subcontractors, the requirement that they hire employees from a union hall makes it difficult to meet affirmative action and DBE goals.
We have worked with many non-union contractors’ signatories to a PLA and have seen how the application of a PLA can discourage the subcontractors a construction company normally works from agreeing to work on a PLA project. In that case, contractors have to find different subcontractors, with whom they have little or no familiarity, but who are willing to sign a PLA.
Further, the PLA typically allows union business agents to enter a project and talk to employees, and many non-union contractors do not want to expose their employees to continuous visits from union representatives. Contractors often view a PLA as an open door to a union petition for representation of their employees.
Construction contractors can expect a significant flow of public work as a result of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act but should be aware that many of these jobs will be governed by a PLA.