Non-union contractors are continuing their push to strike a requirement that the new $400 million Holyoke Soldiers’ Home be built using a project labor agreement, cautioning lawmakers that the directive is unnecessary, costly and discriminatory toward minority- and women-owned contractors.

House Democrats on Thursday are expected to approve legislation (H 3701) that includes the language, which they added to a bill filed by Gov. Charlie Baker. But opponents of the measure are appealing to House progressives and members of the Black and Latino Caucus to remove the stricture.

The project labor agreement language was added to the bill by the State Administration Committee, which is co-chaired by Rep. Antonio Cabral, a Democrat from New Bedford. The House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Boston Democrat Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, retained the PLA language in its version of the bill.

John Cruz of Roxbury, owner of a third-generation minority construction firm founded by his father, wrote to lawmakers urging them to remove the requirement from the bill. Cruz cited a GBH report this month that found less than 1 percent of the construction work associated with Polar Park in Worcester went to a certified minority-owned business. The $100 million project was built under a union agreement.

“Whether it’s in Holyoke, Worcester or Boston, the results will be the same,” Cruz wrote in his letter to lawmakers. “If you make construction projects union-only, open shop non-union minority contractors and workers are effectively shut out.”

In an opinion piece this month, Frank Callahan, president of the 75,000-member Massachusetts Building Trades Council, wrote that the labor agreements “promise diversity and equity in hiring.”

Calling Massachusetts construction unions “nationally recognized leaders in providing career opportunities to previously underserved populations,” Callahan pointed to apprenticeship diversity at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 98 in western Massachusetts, with 22.2 percent women and 44.4 percent people of color. The council says PLAs eliminate project delays due to labor conflicts or shortages of skilled workers.

At a hearing earlier this month, Pioneer Valley Building Trades Council President Colton Andrews told lawmakers he thinks the project labor standards will help ensure a smooth and achievable timeline for the construction.

But at the same hearing, a top Baker deputy, Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) Commissioner Carol Gladstone, said the project labor agreement would create “less opportunity” for minority- and women-owned firms.

“For this project in this location, as we narrow the number of firms, it is more likely that we will end up preferencing firms from Connecticut and New York because of the profile that we’re creating in terms of the subcontractor rule,” said Gladstone, who in 2000 co-founded the real estate development firm GLC Development Resources which was eventually acquired by the international firm Stantec Consulting.

Gladstone’s concerns have been echoed by other groups: Associated Builders and Subcontractors (ABC) and the Merit Construction Alliance, which represents about 36 large, medium and small contractors that are DCAMM-certified and include minority and women-owned businesses.

ABC President Greg Beeman said his organization represents 475 firms that employ about 25,000 people in Massachusetts. He told lawmakers in testimony that Baker’s bill would “allow for all qualified contractors and workers to have a fair opportunity to participate in this important construction project.” Non-union contractors rarely bid on PLA projects, he said, citing only one such bid during his 30 years with the trade group.

Under a PLA, non-union workers would have to affiliate with construction unions to have a chance to work on the new Holyoke Home, Beeman said, which means the non-union contractors would not be able to use their own workers as they would normally do.

“Instead, they would have to use workers referred by the construction unions,” he wrote. “Open shop contractors, unlike their union counterparts, do not use labor pools and hiring halls. They have their own employees who they hire, train and develop. With labor being the most important part of a construction project, it is simply not reasonable for non-union contractors to go into a major project with a new group of workers whose capabilities and output are not known to the contractors.”

In his group’s testimony to lawmakers this month, Merit Construction Alliance President Jason Kauppi said PLAs discriminate against the vast majority of the construction workforce that operates outside of “the confines of organized labor.” The agreements effectively block minority- and women-owned companies from bidding and working on projects, he said, and make it more difficult for the state to reach its supplier diversity goals by “locking out” non-union shops.

State laws and DCAMM rules governing workers’ rights, pay rates and safety already ensure that contractors abide by requirements and ensure that qualified and experienced contractors are hired, according to the alliance, which also cited studies that concluded projects conducted with PLA’s cost more.

Opponents of the PLA language said they expect it to remain in the House bill, but suggested it might be contested in the Senate, where union support is also strong, or could eventually be knocked out of the bill by the governor if it survives legislative deliberations.

(Copyright (c) 2022 State House News Service.

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