There is a common misconception that all Philadelphia Public Works projects must be performed pursuant to a project labor agreement with various members of the Building and Construction Trades Council. This common misconception is even shared by the current Mayoral administration, who I saw in a recent court filing testified under oath that “project labor agreements are required for all construction projects in Philadelphia with a value of at least five million dollars.” (As is discussed below this is flat out false.)
No one has yet to step forward to challenge Philadelphia’s project labor agreement scheme. However, if someone did, I think the challenge would be successful for three reasons. First, contrary to the Mayor’s representative’s statement, there is no requirement that all projects in excess of $5 million be subject to a project labor agreement. Second, Philadelphia’s project labor agreement excludes signatories to collective bargaining agreements with the United Steel Workers (USW) from participating, which violates public bid laws. Third, the exclusion of the USW, also gives rise to a challenge that federal labor law preempts the project labor agreement.
A. Background on the Philadelphia PLA.
Under a project labor agreement (PLA), a contractor wishing to perform work on a project agrees to be bound by the terms and conditions of employment established by the public owner and certain construction unions. Each PLA varies, but typically PLA’s will require a contractor’s employees to become members of a union – if they are already not members – in order to work on a project or will require a contractor to hire labor from a union hiring hall. PLA’s are controversial because they exclude non-union contractors from performing work on a project subject to a PLA, unless of course that contractor agrees to become “union” for purposes of that project. For reasons beyond this blog post, a merit shop contractor would be crazy to do that.
The “Philadelphia PLA” that Mayor Kenney believes is required for all public projects over $5 million was instituted by Mayor Nutter through a 2011 Executive Order(Executive Order No. 15-11, Public Works Project Labor Agreements).