Albany’s probable PLA push

by Ken Girardin |  | NY Torch

Following the Cuomo administration’s lead, at least two financially stressed local governments in the North Country have gone out of their way to steer expensive public works contracts to construction unions—despite higher costs.

The Albany Times Union on Saturday looked at the similar cases of Clinton County and Ogdensburg, where local officials signed “project labor agreements” with unions. Also known as PLAs, these deals have the effect of blocking non-union contractors from bidding on construction projects.

In fact, the City of Ogdensburg even turned its back on federal funding that would have precluded the PLA:

Ogdensburg, a city of 11,000, has financial problems dire enough to require the intervention of a state restructuring board. City officials are simultaneously wrestling with how to pay for a $35 million wastewater treatment project. Two years ago, the state Department of Environmental Conservation ordered the project and threatened to fine the community amid concerns it was using unclean drinking water from the St. Lawrence River.

In June, Ogdensburg officials opted against taking $1 million from the federal government to pay for the renovation. Instead, they conducted a bidding process that ensured the work would go to union labor.

Since then, the cost of the project has ballooned.

“As we’ve seen with the previous PLA projects, major concessions to the original plans had to be made due to inflated costs,” said Brian Sampson, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors Empire State Chapter, which represents non-union contractors.

Clinton County’s airport upgrade project, meanwhile, saw the county throw out the lowest bid because the contractor wouldn’t sign a PLA.

PLA proponents claim they help developers save money by negotiating savings—which, in fact, is more effectively accomplished by the competitive bidding process. Contractors, after all, always have the option of negotiating project labor agreements themselves. Mandatory PLAs involve local officials hand-picking unions outside any competitive or transparent process.

A Cuomo spokesperson dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” the suggestion that Ogdensburg and Clinton County officials had felt pressure from the governor’s office to resort to PLAs.  But Cuomo’s own strong union preference was hardly a secret. After all, this is the governor who has publicly pledged: “Every project we build is going to be built with organized labor—every project.” 

And the Cuomo administration has fought in court for its right to award contracts to union-shop developers even when non-union bidders offer to perform the same work for lower cost. Cuomo also required would-be bidders on the state’s offshore wind subsidies to agree to project labor agreements, despite lacking any evidence PLAs would reduce costs.

Among other things, the situation reported by the Times Union mirrors what happened with a 2017 project sponsored by the Genesee County Economic Development Corporation. After historically showing little interest in side deals with organized labor, the GCEDC required bidders to agree to a PLA in order to work on its manufacturing park—which got $33 million from the Cuomo administration.

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- Ken Girardin is the Policy Analyst at the Empire Center for Public Policy.