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UNIONIZED CONTRACTOR AGAINST PROJECT LABOR AGREEMENTS

Agreements that guarantee union jobs on public projects in return for labor peace are under fire from a new direction -- unionized construction companies.

Gary Hill, president of Union Concrete and Construction Corp. in West Seneca, charges that Project Labor Agreements limit competitive bidding and inflate costs for taxpayers.

Hill's remarks -- long a refrain of non-union builders -- are noteworthy because his company is unionized. His approximately 25 regular workers are members of the carpenters, teamsters, laborers and operating engineers unions.

"The problem is the loss of control over who we hire on a project," Hill said.

Recent agreements in Western New York mandate that half the project's workers be picked by the union.

"It's as if you had an orchestra, and they (unions) told you who to put on it," he said.

Hill spoke during a recent panel discussion in Williamsville on Project Labor Agreements, or PLAs.

The perennial issue -- which raised dust before the workers did at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Buffalo Niagara International Airport -- is warming up again as the Buffalo School Board considers a PLA for the construction of the Northwest Academy.

Clearly, not many unionized contractors share Hill's view about PLAs, said Daniel Boody, president of the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council. Boody said he hasn't heard from any other union contractors who object to the agreements.

Unions say PLAs make projects more efficient, eliminate costly strikes and ensure that jobs go to local workers. Non-union contractors say the agreements chiefly shut them out by forcing them to hire union workers and make one-way payments into union pension funds.

But Hill isn't the only unionized builder who doesn't support PLAs. A union contractor who participated in the PLA-governed portion of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport project said the agreement protected make-work jobs for union-supplied workers. The extra jobs, plus fines that unions collect for breaches of work rules, escalated costs, he said.

The contractor spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he feared retaliation.

The Associated General Contractors, New York State Inc., an Albany-based industry group, also opposes PLAs that mandate union-hall hiring. More than half the statewide group's members are union contractors, said Robert Bain, director of government affairs.

"Our opposition to this is it restricts free and open competition," Bain said.

A study by the group found that blocking non-union contractors from state construction projects would have cost taxpayers $65 million over a two-year period, Bain said, adding about 7 percent to the $1 billion total. The study examined bids awarded to non-union builders in fiscal 1995 and 1996, then estimated the cost if the lowest unionized bid had been chosen instead.

At Union Concrete, the uncertainty about the work force means the company's bid must be higher on a project that has a PLA, Hill said. For that reason, the company won't bid on PLA-governed projects, he said.

"There's a lot of things we use carpenters for that the ironworkers claim," Hill said. But the company, lacking regular ironworker employees, would have them supplied from the union hall, displacing Hill's regular workers. "What do we do with our carpenters, tell them we have no work?" Hill said.

Richard Furlong, an attorney for the building trades, said unions are becoming adept at writing PLAs that demonstrate savings on the project, meeting a central requirement for legal validity. A recent construction PLA negotiated in Las Vegas contained $20 million in savings, he said. Future PLAs in Western New York will withstand legal challenges, he predicted.

"Courts look at savings," Furlong said.

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