NEWBURYPORT — Many are wondering if it’s good roadway construction policy or just election-year politicking that caused the Patrick administration to require only union labor on the $285 million Whittier Memorial Bridge.
The rule that slams the door on most of the non-union construction companies in the state during tough economic times and high unemployment rates has many calling foul, including Greg Beeman, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts, whose members represent open shop construction companies.
Beeman said more than 80 percent of construction workers in the state are not affiliated with unions, according to unionstate.com, which analyzes U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
“We frankly do not understand how this is good government policy, good for the commonwealth and the Massachusetts taxpayer,” Beeman said. “Why would they put a policy into effect that would limit bidders and the bidding pool? You’d think they’d expand the pool to get more bang for their buck.”
A spokesman for the state Department of Transportation said the decision reflects the state’s intention to make sure the best qualified workers do the complex construction that will be required and that the job gets done on time and on budget.
The Whittier bridge replacement project, slated to begin next year, is one of the largest construction projects in the state. It will replace the aging steel Whittier bridge spanning the Merrimack River and expand the highway and nearby bridges to eight lanes. Currently. the Whittier Bridge has six lanes, and the highway from Newburyport north to Interstate 495 narrows to six lanes.
Beeman said by culling out nonunion labor, the state is decreasing the number of companies who can bid on the job and the skilled laborers who can work on it. The result will be a smaller number of competitive bids, as well as a smaller worker pool from which to draw. That can only drive up the cost, he said, as union companies don’t have to contend with competition from open shops, which sometime offer lower costs.
“There are probably six to eight companies which would bid on this job, and with the project labor agreement (mandating union labor), at least three will probably drop out of the bidding. That’s significant,” Beeman continued. “There is an inequity with this (mandate) that’s part of a bigger picture. Unions are important for a lot of Democrats and this is an election year. That’s what this is all about.”
Union-only contracts became an issue two years ago in the 2010 gubernatorial election. Patrick had told union supporters that he would advocate for union-only projects in certain situations, a move his GOP opponent Charles Baker opposed. A spokesman for the governor would not return a call from The Daily News regarding the bridge project.
Beeman believes that project labor agreements are a “tool” of organized labor and promoted especially hard during election years to try to guarantee work for their members and union votes for politicians. Now that the public knows about it, Beeman believes they won’t like it.
Beeman said Suffix University did a study on the effect of project labor agreements (PLA) on school construction projects and found a 12 to 18 percent higher cost on the projects studied. That’s not because of lower wages paid to non-union workers, he said, because everyone has to pay the prevailing wage.
Beeman blames the higher cost on the lack of competition in the bid process when non-union companies are taken out of the picture.
“Open shops are more efficient because they cross-train their employees, so they can hire fewer people,” he said.
Beeman said often on union jobs, there are territorial boundaries that can’t be crossed. Carpenters only work on wood, electricians on wiring and so one. Many union tradesmen aren’t allowed even to move the materials they work with, he said, so others have to be hired to bring the materials to the tradesmen. Beeman said union companies don’t have to tighten their belts as much as they would when competing for a job against them.
According to state Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Verseckes, there were good reasons why Transportation Secretary Richard Davey, in conjunction with the office of Labor and Workforce Development, recommended to Gov. Patrick that a project labor agreement was the way to go with the Whittier bridge and Cambridge’s Longfellow Bridge projects.
In response to questions from The Daily News, Verseckes wrote that the Whittier project was designated by President Obama in October 2011 to be one of 14 “high-priority infrastructure projects with significant potential for job creation” targeted to be expedited through the permitting and environmental review process.
“MassDOT believes that a project labor agreement on the Whittier Bridge is a prudent move given the scope and complexity of the project,” Verseckes wrote. “The PLA provides us with additional security in the event of any labor unrest and may help ensure the bridge is finished on time and on budget.”
None of that washes with Beeman. The excuse that union labor is required to assure a plentiful supply of highly skilled workers so it can be completed in a cost-effective, time-efficient manner is contrary to decades of experience, he said. Scores of complex highway construction and bridge projects are excellently completed, on time and on budget by non-union construction companies every year, he said.
And, given the result of the state’s most famous mandated union-only project — the Big Dig — Beeman said those reasons just don’t past muster. The biggest roadway construction project of its time came in grossly over its original $2-plus billion budget, he said, was completed long after its due date and has had repeated quality issues.
Beeman calls the state officials’ comments about fear of union unrest or union workers picketing a non-union work site a “red herring.” Beeman can’t remember the last time a public transportation non-union project was picketed by union members, or when pickets prevented a project from moving forward. Picketing nonunion public transportation jobs is uncommon, he said, because public jobs go to the lowest bidder.
At least one local non-union heavy construction company is still going to try to work with the union mandate and put in a bid for the Whittier bridge. According to Wayne Capolupo, president of SPS New England, the Salisbury company will be pulling together a joint venture with other construction firms to bid on the Whittier job. To do so, the company will sign a union contract for the extent of the project.
According to both Beeman and Capolupo, joint venture are utilized on large construction jobs by union and non-union firms across the country.
“The Whittier bridge is definitely considered a mega-project by any contractor in the state,” Capolupo said.