Project Labor Agreements, also known as Community Workforce Agreements or Project Stabilization Agreements, have been used as successful business models for complex construction projects since before WWII. During the New Deal era, big public works projects such as the Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and Shasta Dam were all built using early PLAs, and the use of the model rapidly increased during the war. With dozens of different organizations working on a project, construction managers foresaw an endless series of labor negotiations as one contract after another came up for renewal, each inspiring fears of threats or delays. The elegantly simple solution to the problem was to put all workers under a single, umbrella contract that applied only to the specific project.
The basic PLA structure allows for great flexibility, and these agreements have evolved to fit the needs of the economy and different jobs. When price competition was steep in the 1980s, for example, stop-loss agreements offered concessions to offer high-quality labor for low prices. In the 90s, union membership and apprenticeship rates were down and construction users struggled to find qualified craft construction workers that had historically come out of union apprenticeship programs. Managers adopted PLAs as a mutually-beneficial option for ensuring the availability of skilled labor and providing sustainable job opportunities for many union workers.
Project Labor Agreements have been instrumental in building scores of large projects across the nation. The Kennedy Space Center, nuclear missile sites, and the Trans-Alaskan pipeline all utilized PLAs. Other notable PLA projects include the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the nuclear research facility at Oak Ridge, San Francisco International Airport’s newest terminals, St. Lawrence Seaway, Disney World, Cape Canaveral, Port of Seattle, Port of Oakland, TF Green Airport, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Seattle Seahawks Stadium, Safeco Field, and the Washington Nationals Stadium.
Perhaps surprisingly, most PLAs have been used in the private sector. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, for example, Disney, Toyota, General Motors, and major oil companies all used PLAs for major construction projects. In fact, Toyota has used Project Labor Agreements on all of its major construction projects, totaling more than 38 million hours of construction labor, since the mid-1980s . Toyota reports that their per foot construction costs are one-third less than those of the competitors who eschew the use of Project Labor Agreements. Bechtel has utilized project labor agreements on over 100 large construction jobs nationwide in the last twenty-five years, most of which are in the private sector. Bechtel has used PLAs mainly on industrial construction projects such as oil refineries, power plants, aluminum plants, and heavy and highway construction.”
In the past 20 years, opponents of PLAs such as the Associated Building Contractors (ABC) have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on litigation and lobbying campaigns to prevent the use of PLAs on public projects, arguing that they discriminate against non-union contractors and employees or force them to unionize. In the landmark Boston Harbor case of 1993, the United States Supreme Court considered whether public PLAs violated federal law . The court (which included two of the most conservative judges in history in Antony Scalia and Clarence Thomas) was unanimous in upholding the legality of PLAs. Public agencies, the court held, have just as much right as a private purchasers to choose PLAs “to attempt to ensure an efficient project that would be completed as quickly and effectively as possible at the lowest cost.” The Court also emphasized that all contractors, regardless of union status, are free to choose whether to bid on PLA projects:
“Confronted with [a PLA job], those contractors who do not normally enter such agreements are faced with a choice. They may alter their usual mode of operation to secure the business opportunity at hand, or seek business from purchasers whose perceived needs to not include a project labor agreement.”