By Kate Alexander
WASHINGTON – The answer to questions swirling around the project labor agreement proposed for the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge replacement may be found less than 10 miles away.
Supporters contend that the steady progress of the new Washington Convention Center in the District has shown that a project labor agreement, like the controversial agreement negotiated for the Wilson Bridge project, can be an advantage for extensive construction projects.
The project is on-time to open in 2003, though it has experienced cost overruns that have been attributed to the rising cost of materials, said Tony Robinson, spokesman for the Washington Convention Center Authority.
But opponents of the agreement charge that cost overruns and the lack of competition-given that union contractors have claimed about 85 percent of the subcontracting jobs-demonstrate the pitfalls of a contract between labor and project management.
The situation at the convention center is another example of how the project labor agreements provide an unfair advantage to union contractors, said Maurice Baskin, general counsel for the Associated Builders and Contractors, an advocate for open-shop contractors.
Contractors are not the only critics of such agreements: President Bush is expected to sign an executive order restricting such agreements, the Associated Press reported Friday.
A project labor agreement, or PLA, is a common tool on large-scale construction projects, laying out negotiated work rules, working conditions, hiring practices and methods for settling disputes. In return, the unions agree not to strike and to provide a steady stream of skilled labor.
“The PLA has provided several important benefits,” said Greg Colevas, project executive for Clark/Smoot, the joint venture contractor that is managing the project. “These include well-developed union training programs, new apprenticeship opportunities and a wider labor pool to draw from in a tight labor market.
“All of this has had a positive effect on the job by helping us to keep the work on schedule while meeting our employment goals,” Colevas said.
Clark/Smoot says that work at the convention center has also created long- term career opportunities for local workers and over half of the subcontractors are city-certified local, small or disadvantaged businesses.
Unions view the convention center as proof that such agreements work.
The project’s progress is due in part to the fact that the agreement provides an avenue that would not exist otherwise for dealing with small concerns before they become big concerns, said Michael Dorsey of the Washington Building Trades Council.
“Communication, that is the real benefit of a PLA,” said Dorsey, who was also involved in the Wilson Bridge negotiations. It also ensures that “workers have a legitimate seat at the table.”
For instance, the agreement stipulated the creation of an oversight committee that meets regularly to discuss issues like working conditions and staffing. The committee includes representatives from the convention center authority, Clark/Smoot, the unions and the city’s apprenticeship office.
Dorsey added that he is not aware of this kind of contracted cooperation on any project without a project labor agreement.
The $756 million Washington Convention Center — which claims to be the largest public works project in the city’s history — may be comparable in scope to the bridge, but Baskin argues that the use of a labor agreement at the convention center does not bolster the argument for project labor agreements on the Wilson Bridge.
The fundamental difference, he said, is that the convention center contract was negotiated with the private Clark/Smoot, whereas the Wilson Bridge agreement is with the state. Baskin also noted that work rules and contractors’ expenses on the Wilson Bridge project are much more daunting than at the convention center.
The publisher of an independent national newsletter on construction industry labor issues agreed that every project labor agreement is different and that they are difficult to compare. But Peter A Cockshaw said the agreements have been used for decades and are becoming increasingly common.
The Wilson Bridge effort is a $2.2 billion project to replace the aging six-lane Potomac River crossing with a 12-lane, two-span bridge to carry Interstate 95 traffic between Maryland and Virginia. Each state is throwing in $200 million toward the project, which will be largely federally funded.
But because Maryland owns the Potomac River beneath, it is responsible for the construction of the bridge itself, giving Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, the authority to negotiate an agreement with the building trades and construction unions.
In addition to drawing the fire of the White House, that agreement has brought criticism from Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, a Republican, and Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, and sparked a bitter partisan debate.
Cockshaw, who has published Cockshaw’s Construction Labor News and Opinion since 1971, said the partisan debate is just the latest wrinkle in a long- running fight over such agreements. But as the battle moves increasingly into the political arena, he said, the partisan bickering leads to a lot of “baloney” from both sides.