By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
5:17 PM EST, January 20, 2012
Organized labor wants a guaranteed role in the offshore wind project Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to propose — and the unions want it in writing.
The demand by construction unions is the latest hurdle for O'Malley's effort to spur the creation of a new energy industry off Maryland's Atlantic coast that would generate energy using enormous wind turbines anchored 10 miles off Ocean City.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said labor raised the issue of a "project labor agreement," or PLA, this week during a meeting at which environmentalists advocating the project also participated. Miller said some wind-power advocates have concerns about the effect that such an agreement — which typically would ensure a role for unionized workers — would have on costs.
O'Malley, who failed to get a wind-power bill through the General Assembly last year, is expected to announce details of new legislation Monday.
But this time around, O'Malley may have to take into account labor's demand to have its role guaranteed in the legislation. If not resolved, the issue could split the union-environmentalist coalition that backed the bill last year. Rod Easter, president of the Baltimore Building & Construction Trades Council, said the unions he represents want to make sure their Maryland members benefit from the jobs that could be created in construction and operation of any offshore wind farm.
"There's got to be something written in the bill to include organized labor for us to totally commit to the project," Easter said. "We cannot be standing on the curb watching people go to work who don't live in Maryland."
Easter said members of the council's unions — including pipe fitters, carpenters, roofers, electricians and other construction trades — have had to travel far and wide to find scarce work in the past few years. He said that without a PLA, his concern is that workers in other states — just as desperate for work and just as willing to travel — could take most of the jobs on any Maryland wind project. He said a PLA would guarantee Maryland employment because local labor organizations, or national unions acting on their behalf, would be signatories to the pact.
Easter said that without a PLA, labor might not oppose the bill outright but would stand on the sidelines.
Project labor agreements generally guarantee a union role and spell out the terms and conditions of work on a project in return for a guarantee of no work interruptions. Easter said they also typically call for participation by minorities and women as well as training opportunities for apprentices.
Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said his coalition of wind-power supporters has no objections in principle to PLAs. "Nobody is opposed to it. The question is how we do it," he said.
Tidwell added that he shares Easter's aim of bringing every possible job to Maryland, but he doesn't know how a PLA would help. "I'd have to learn more about what the consequence are. I honestly don't know," he said. "The cost is clearly a concern to the lawmakers."
One of those legislators is Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The Charles County Democrat, whose panel will consider the bill, said his understanding is that nonunion contractors generally won't bid on projects with PLAs.
"When you reduce competition, you probably increase the costs," he said. Middleton added that as a purely parochial consideration, he has no union contracting companies in his district.
Yet Middleton is not ruling out a PLA requirement. He said that for certain projects, such as a nuclear power plant, a PLA may be justified because of the need to use the most highly skilled workers. Building offshore wind turbines may fall into the same category, he said.
"This is very skilled work here," he said, adding that he could not make a decision until he has done more analysis.
But Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin said a PLA would only make a bad idea worse.
"Offshore wind is the most expensive power you can have — period," the Upper Shore Republican said. "A project labor agreement isn't going to make that any cheaper."
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