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News Opinion Op-Eds

Wind energy needs union workers

There has been a lot said and written about a project labor agreement (PLA) being implemented for the proposed Maryland offshore wind energy project. When the time arrives for investments to be made in the construction of this critical project, there will be essentially two business models from which the state of Maryland can choose to place its scare resources. The first is a business model that is epitomized by the use of PLAs.

PLAs are a market-based tool that offer increased job-site 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 $1 billion a year in private investments in craft apprenticeship programs. These programs, in turn, produce professionals who 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).

Furthermore, the PLA model promotes the development of career training opportunities in the skilled trades for local residents — particularly women, minorities and military veterans.

Unfortunately, most of what people read about PLAs is the byproduct of a disinformation campaign being perpetuated by the Baltimore and Maryland chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors — entities that represent less than 6 percent of the registered construction contractors in the state of Maryland.

The PLA model lies in stark contrast to the "open shop" or "merit shop" business model, which is widely becoming known across the nation as the "race to the bottom" business model because it is predicated upon a contractor's ability to assemble a low-wage, low-skill, and oftentimes highly vulnerable and exploitable workforce. The anti-PLA zealots believe that PLAs work at the expense of taxpayers and to the detriment of fair and open competition. But that raises the question as to whether the use of illegal and undocumented workers (estimated at 25 percent of the U.S. construction industry prior to 2008), or the egregious misclassification of workers as independent contractors, constitutes "fair and open competition."

When criticizing public construction PLAs, these "race to the bottom" contractors conveniently fail to mention that these agreements are being increasingly utilized in the private sector by sophisticated, profit-oriented and cost-conscious corporations like Disney, Gillette, Reebok, dozens of professional sports teams (including the Orioles and the Ravens), and every single one of Toyota's U.S. manufacturing plants. In fact, Toyota has estimated that its construction costs are one-third less than those of its competitors who eschew the use of PLAs for their construction needs. Heck, evenWal-Mart, the corporate poster child for cost-conscious management and a devotion to efficiency, is increasingly turning to PLAs for the construction of its retail facilities.

In 2011 alone, more than 200 public- and private-sector PLAs were negotiated across the United States, with a collective value approaching $200 billion. 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 in the private sector, they will work on public projects like the Maryland offshore wind project.

Mark H. Ayers is president of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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