Rep. James Comer, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, introduced a bill that aims to deemphasize project labor agreements in the federal contract bidding process.
The Fair and Open Competition Act would “require neutrality” in federal procurement by ensuring preference isn’t given to a bidders who agree to PLAs on construction projects, countering a pro-labor measure President Joe Biden reinforced in 2022.
“This is a crucial step to ensure that the over 80% of the U.S. construction workforce who does not belong to a union gets a fair shot at these crucial projects,” Comer said in a statement.
A year ago this month, Biden issued an executive order requiring PLAs on federally funded construction projects worth $35 million or more as a way to standardize work rules, compensation and dispute settlement procedures and achieve administration goals toward a more equitable procurement ecosystem. The order was estimated to affect $262 billion in federal construction contracts that employ some 200,000 workers. Such large infrastructure projects can’t afford to run off the rails or be delayed by conflict stalemates, the White House has said.
A PLA is negotiated pre-hire and sets the terms and conditions for work on a specific construction contract. They’ve been in use since at least 1930s on large projects including the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the Kennedy Space Center.
PLAs generally include a provision that unions will not strike, and contractors agree not to “lock out” workers — or refuse them work in between bargaining agreements, according to the Congressional Research Service. A PLA also usually applies to all contractors and subcontractors on that job.
PLAs have been controversial between policymakers, contractors and workers, who tried to reverse them during both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Those in support of Comer’s bill said PLAs make contractors “exclusively hire apprentices from union programs, follow union work rules and pay into union benefit and multi-employer pension plans that nonunion employees could not access,” according to a Feb. 7 letter written by several construction and business associations.
Though the Congressional Research Service said it’s unclear how PLAs affect costs, opponents say that non-union contractors lose out on money by not bidding on projects that are covered by an agreement.
To not bid on a PLA contract is a choice, a report by Cornell University countered, and “contractor choices in no way limit the power of public entities to make the rules and require PLA use,” nor do PLAs “promote favoritism or cronyism because the PLA applies whether the successful bidder is a union or nonunion contractor.”
Those who support PLAs say agreements make a project more efficient by ensuring predictable expenses and a reliable workforce bound by rules of engagement, all in the name of ensuring the projected is completed on time and within budget.
Further, they prevents a “race to the bottom” for the cheapest possible bid, they say, even though these construction contracts are held to a minimum compensation floor by the Davis-Bacon Act.
Former President Barack Obama issued a pro-PLA order in 2009, though he took a softer approach than Biden and only encouraged the “consideration” of a PLA requirement on large-scale construction projects.
According to the data collected by the White House, between 2009 and 2021, there were approximately 2,000 eligible contracts and the requirement for a PLA was used 12 times.
Over the years, studies have been done to try to capture the cost impact of PLAs on construction contracts, and the findings have varied. Some did point to an increase in expenses, while others say the linkage is not strong enough to determine causation.
For one, a study for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs found that the effect of PLAs on construction costs is “strongly influenced by the degree of unionization in an area.” In cities with a high rate of unionization, PLAs can have a positive impact by providing consistent wages and work rules. In cities where that is less prevalent, PLAs increased costs by 5% to 9%.
Two dozen states have some form of law curbing use of PLAs on construction projects.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.