What is a project labor agreement?
Representing 16 million square feet of development across 161 acres that will span two communities and require 14,000 construction workers over the course of 15 to 20 years, the project labor agreement for the construction of the Suffolk Downs redevelopment will be the largest agreement of its kind for a private-sector project ever in the region. But what is a project labor agreement, exactly?
“Project labor agreements are good, sound public policy,” says Brian Doherty, secretary treasurer and general agent of the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District. “They ensure that all stakeholders involved with construction projects benefit. PLAs are good for developers, contractors, workers, and surrounding communities.”
The concept of a project labor agreement (PLA) dates back to the 1930s, when it was first introduced to help guide complex and massive public projects such as the Hoover Dam in Nevada and the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. A PLA establishes the terms and conditions of employment for construction workers prior to breaking ground on a project. It defines a set of agreed-upon expectations for all parties.
To draft a PLA, union labor organizations negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the owner of a project, whether it is a public or private entity. In some cases, general contractors and/or representatives of the communities in which projects are based are also involved in the negotiations. For the Suffolk Downs PLA, general contractor John Moriarty & Associates participated in the development of the agreement along with the project’s owner, the HYM Investment Group, and the building trades unions.
Included among agreements’ terms are elements such as employee wages and benefits, budgets, timelines, accountability and transparency provisions, and community benefits. More recently, issues such as pay equity, gender equity, and diversity equity have been addressed in PLAs, including the one negotiated for the Suffolk Downs project.
By considering and standardizing terms and conditions up front, PLAs help promote productivity, efficiencies, and stability, which engender the quality of the work and the timely completion of projects. The agreements dictate minimum standards that translate into fair treatment for workers, including assurances that they will not be locked out of their jobs. In exchange, workers agree not to strike or picket during the term of the PLA. Should disputes arise, resolution mechanisms are included in the agreement.
“The best way to develop a PLA–and it’s worked for nearly 100 years now–is to anticipate any issues that might come up and resolve them before the project starts,” Doherty says.
The benefits flow in all directions. “The PLA gives us predictability in terms of cost, schedule, and quality,” says Tom O’Brien, HYM founding partner and managing director. “We build all of our jobs with union construction trades.”
While Suffolk Downs is enormous, PLAs are not necessarily used just for large projects. The advantages that they bring can be scaled for projects of any size.
Through the years, PLAs have weathered some storms. In the 1980s and 1990s, anti-worker forces challenged their legality. The issue made its way through the judicial system, ending with the Supreme Court hearing a case regarding the Boston Harbor cleanup in 1993. The court voted unanimously to uphold the use of PLAs on public projects based on the fact that they make sense for both business and labor.
“PLAs just make sense,” Doherty says when asked why the agreements have stood the test of time and remain vital today. “They’re critical to the democratic process. They ensure that when there is economic development, everyone has a seat at the table and shares in economic prosperity.”