Is MSU Hyping Project Labor Agreements?

School of Labor Relations holds conference on controversial construction rules

A week from today Michigan State University's School of Labor and Industrial Relations will host a conference on Project Labor Agreements. PLAs effectively require that any bidder on a public construction must have an agreement in place with local construction unions -- effectively freezing non-union contractors out of bidding. Since the overwhelming majority -- close to 80 percent -- of the construction industry in Michigan is non-union, this chokes off most of the potential competitors and raises the cost of construction.

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To be fair, MSU has invited PLA critics to make a presentation, but on the whole the agenda suggests that the fix might be in. In particular, the "open shop" (i.e. non-union) contractor representatives make their case at a 2 p.m. session. After a brief break, MSU's Dale Belman has 30 minutes to give his presentation on "Opening PLAs to the Open Shop." But since the Associated Builders and Contractors and the other non-union contractors don't get a response, we the audience will have no way of telling whether or not Belman's ideas go far enough; Belman has the last word.

Union contractors receive more than enough protection under the state's prevailing wage law, which mandates union wages on state construction and adds 10 percent to the cost of government construction. That adds up to more than $250 million annually! By blocking out capable contractors, PLAs only drive inflated prices higher.

Project Labor Agreements are at best an unnecessary headache for both government and contractors. At worst they are another payoff for uncompetitive unionized construction. One hopes that the attendees of this conference will be able to piece that together, but MSU may be trying to confuse matters. We will be watching and hoping that's not the case.