December 20, 2010 | last updated March 25, 2012 6:25 am

Contractors Unite To Fight PLAs

Since 1997 Mark Manca and Roland Barrett, hard hat-wearing non-union construction workers, have relied on the Merit Construction Alliance to advocate against project labor agreements, or PLAs, which are stipulations on some public projects that work be performed by union contractors.

But the alliance is a group for owners of construction companies, not necessarily the workers themselves.

So this summer. Manca, Barrett and another local contractor, Bruce Kacevich, formed the Merit Construction Professionals, a group with the same gripe against PLAs but with a narrower focus of only accepting construction workers themselves into the group.

"We really just wanted to stand up for ourselves and show that this doesn't just impact the owners, but the workers too," Manca said.

Public Projects, Public Battles

While the controversy over PLAs is nothing new, they have grabbed some headlines recently. The University of Massachusetts Boston campus recently announced that a more than $700 million construction project would include a PLA.

For Manca, who works for General Mechanical Contractors in Auburn, that was the straw that broke the camel's back and pushed him and his contractor buddies to form the group.

Since this summer, Manca, Kacevich and Barrett, who works for Renaud Electric and Communications in Sutton, have been traveling around the state, visiting job sites and signing on new members. So far, the new group's membership totals about 300.

There is another side to the story, however. Pro-union groups argue that PLAs ensure that Massachusetts contractors work on Massachusetts public projects. Union construction shops also require workers to have proper training and safety standards.

"PLAs make sure you get what you pay for," said Francis Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades group, which represents about 75 different unions in the state.

While some research has shown that PLAs can add as much as 15 percent to the initial bid price of a job, Callahan said the final cost will actually be lower with a PLA, with fewer change orders and less risk of delays.

Still, those in the newly formed Merit Construction Professionals group disagree.

"We're not asking for favoritism, just a level playing field," Manca said. While a non-union contractor technically can bid on a PLA project, the work must be performed by union workers. So, the non-union or open-shop companies that Manca, Barrett and Kacevich work for usually don't even bother bidding on the jobs.

Emotions run high on both sides of the issue. For example, each side accuses the other of inflating the numbers related to how many union and non-union workers there are in Massachusetts.

The Merit Construction Professionals website features a video in which Barrett alleges that PLAs are discriminating against the non-union workers.

That may be true, according to Worcester lawyer James Donnelly, a partner at Mirick O'Connell.

"In the strict definitional sense, anything that draws a distinction between one classification and another is discrimination," Donnelly said. "But that doesn't make it illegal."

Public entities can make the case that there are legitimate reasons union organizations are better suited to perform certain kinds of construction work. Non-union members may disagree, but they have scant legal recourse.

"Essentially it's a public policy debate, not a legal one," Donnelly said. "And it's one that will go on for a long time."

And now, with the formation of Merit Construction Professionals, there are even more new voices adding to the discourse.

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