The continuing and unfounded criticisms of the Dulles Rail extension Project Labor Agreement (PLA) by public officials in Virginia demonstrate an embarrassing lack of knowledge and familiarity with the project itself; the U.S. construction industry as it exists today; and more importantly the greater Washington DC construction market.
When the time arrived for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) to invest dollars in the construction industry for the expansion of the Dulles Rail Line, it had essentially two business models from which to choose. The first is a business model that is epitomized by the use of PLAs. PLAs are a market-based tool that offer increased jobsite efficiencies, productivity, and on-time, on-budget results through a steady, LOCAL supply of the world’s safest, most highly trained and productive skilled craft workforce; a workforce that has been developed through almost a billion dollars a year in private investments in skilled craft apprenticeship programs. These program, in turn, produce highly skilled and productive craft professionals that command a pay and benefits package reflective of their skill and productivity levels (which numerous and rigorous academic studies have shown actually reduces costs for public agencies).
Now, this PLA model lies in stark contrast to the “open shop” or "merit shop" business model – which is widely becoming known as the “race to the bottom” model because its advocates staunchly believe that contracts in the construction industry ought to be awarded solely upon a contractor’s ability to assemble a low-wage, low-skill, and oftentimes the highly vulnerable and exploitable, workforce. They believe that PLAs work at the expense of taxpayers and to the detriment of fair and open competition. But, that begs the question as to whether the use of illegal and undocumented workers (estimated at 25% of the U.S. construction industry prior to the current economic downturn; and 55% in the greater Washington DC construction market), or the systematic abuse of the H2(b) visa program to import skilled workers from other countries, or the misclassification of workers as “independent contractors” constitutes “fair and open competition.”
They chose the PLA model; and it's proven to be a success. The first Phase of the project is to date ahead of schedule and under budget. And it has the best safety record of any construction project in the state of Virginia. Contrast that record with the on-going Springfield interchange project (I-95 and I-495), which is being constructed without the benefit of a PLA. It is three times over budget, way behind schedule, and there have been three fatalities on the job.
Overall, probably the best argument for the use of PLAs on major public sector construction projects like the Dulles Rail extension is that they have been utilized for decades in the private sector by large, sophisticated, profit-oriented and cost-conscious owners, developers, construction managers and contractors. They want the best results in the most cost-effective and time-sensitive manner possible. Disney World, the GM Saturn Plant, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Gillette, Reebok, dozens of professional sports stadiums, and all eight of Toyota’s American manufacturing facilities, are but a small example of major private sector projects that have utilized PLAs. Even Wal-Mart, the corporate “poster child” of cost-conscious and efficiency management, is turning increasingly to PLAs for the construction of its retail facilities.
In fact, the most recent high-profile public construction project in the DC area was the Woodrow Wilson bridge expansion project. The Maryland portion of the project was done under the National Heavy and Highway Construction Agreement (for all practical purposes, PLA). That project came in ahead of schedule and on budget. The Virginia side? Well, it was done without the benefit of a PLA, and came in behind schedule and over-budget!
The lesson here is that Project Labor Agreements continue to be utilized by the profit-oriented private sector because of one paramount rationale: THEY WORK! And if they work for the private sector, they will work for the public sector on projects such as the Dulles rail extension.
It is time for PLA critics to put aside their unfounded emotional, philosophical, and rhetorical pleas and to consider PLAs on a rational, case-by-case basis, as the courts and private sector owners have found to be the most reasonable and responsible approach to the issue.