Dulles Rail Union Giveaway to Increase Costs

An expensive rail line for passengers traveling in and out of the Washington, D.C. region’s Dulles International Airport never struck me as a good use of taxpayer dollars. As a resident of northern Virginia, I’ve found the Washington Flyer bus service reliable and affordable. However, now that the Metro rail line is being built, its costs should be  kept as much under control as possible.

Unfortunately, the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) — which oversees both Dulles and Reagan National — threw caution to the wind recently, by imposing a project labor agreement (PLA) on the second phase of the line’s construction. PLAs impose onerous conditions on contractors who wish to bid on government projects.

Under PLA, employers can be required to hire workers through union hiring halls and apprentices through union apprentice programs. In addition, workers — whether previously unionized or not — can be required to pay union dues. The Washington Examiner reports:

The MWAA board’s 11-2 decision last week to mandate a project labor agreement, or PLA, for the second phase of Dulles Rail construction, will not preclude nonunionized contractors from bidding on the multibillion-dollar project. If they win the bid, however, it will require they follow specific wage guidelines, offer union benefits, and hire union workers. The move comes on the heels of the board’s decision to spend $330 million more on the Dulles International Airport train station, against the wishes of state and local officials.

“Basically, this mandates unions,” said Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity, R-Springfield.

The effects are already being felt. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York says, “Already, we’ve heard of at least three contractors not bidding on the project because of the agreement. If you limit the number of bids, that can drive the cost way up.” As the Examiner notes, a study by the Massachusetts-based Beacon Hill Institute, found that PLAs add between 12 and 18 percent to the total cost of a construction project.

Proponents of PLAs typically argue that they ensure stability in a project’s labor force and ensure skill levels — as if contractors didn’t have enough of an incentive to maintain an effective, productive, skilled workforce. A comment by Dennis Martire, a MWAA board member who voted for the PLA and who just happens to be a union official, is worth noting in this regard.

“All this does is establish worker rules and where you get your workers from,” said Martire, vice president of Laborers’ International Union of North America. “They’d rather get a guy off of a bar stool and give him a tool and a lower wage. I don’t know how productive that is.”

If we lived in Martire’s fantasy world in which contractors don’t care at all about the skill and experience of the workers they hire, PLAs might be a good idea. Of course, we don’t, and they’re not.

In fact, it is those rigid union “worker rules” Martire cites which increase project costs,  by making it more difficult for supervisors to reassign workers as needed to respond to changing conditions on the ground.

To make matters even worse, PLAs place minority contractors, many of which are nonunion, at a disadvantage.

For more on PLAs, see here and here.