Project Labor Agreements’ Dire Effects on Minority Contractors

Today, DC Progress, a public policy organization that focuses on the District of Columbia, hosted a panel on the issue of underemployment. DC Progress President Christian Robey noted that underemployment can be defined in different ways: either as somebody working at a job for which he or she is overqualified, or at fewer hours than desired. However defined, the problem of underemployment is one of unfulfilled potential, both for job creation and for access to good jobs that do exist. (Disclosure: DC Progress currently shares offices with CEI.)

Thus, the solution to underemployment lies in removing obstacles to greater job creation. National Black Chamber of Commerce President Harry Alford went straight to the heart of the matter. “The solution to underemployment and unemployment are free enterprise and entrepreneurship.” At the local level of Washington, DC, he identified project labor agreements as a major regulatory stumbling block to local residents, including minority residents, gaining access to better jobs. And the problem is likely to get worse, due to President Obama’s rescinding of an Executive Order prohibiting project labor agreements (PLAs) on federal construction projects, a decision Alford said he was “disturbed” by.

Project labor agreements handicap nonunion contractors who wish to bid on federal projects by imposing burdensome requirements on them. Under a PLA, an open shop contractor could be required to employ workers from union hiring halls, acquire apprentices from union apprentice programs, and require employees to pay union dues. As an example, he cited Nationals Park, which, was built under a PLA. Although it is in Southeast DC, “very few people in southeast Washington”worked on it. As Alford noted, most minority contractors are nonunion.

“The biggest problem with unions is the games they play with these apprenticeship programs,” Alford also said, noting that it can take up to four years for an apprentice to make it to journeyman — without an enforceable guarantee of union membership at the end. (Alford noted that he was only talking about construction unions.)

For more on project labor agreements, see here.