It’s time for Sound Transit to stop playing political favorites with unions and adopt a better, more competitive plan that serves the public.

Share story

VOTERS in Sound Transit’s tax district soon will be asked to authorize one of the most expensive public-works projects in modern history.

But before they write the agency a blank check for $54 billion, voters should know about a little-discussed Sound Transit policy that restricts competition, discriminates against small and minority-owned contractors and would almost certainly increase the cost of any project manyfold.

The culprit is the agency’s project labor agreement (PLA), which requires nonunion contractors to operate as if they were union contractors.

Under a PLA, all craft employees — union or nonunion — must be hired through union halls, and worker compensation passes through union trust accounts. Nonunion workers must pay representation fees and the contractor must agree to follow specific union work rules, hire apprentices exclusively from union programs and pay into union benefit plans on behalf of employees even if the contractors already have their own qualified programs.

By Sound Transit’s own accounting, its PLA has increased contractor bids as much as 10 percent in some cases.

PLA advocates maintain such an agreement is the only way to protect Sound Transit against strikes and lockouts, noting that the majority of hours worked on agency projects are performed by union workers.

First, this is an admission that unionized workers are more likely to strike and that they need a PLA to stop them from doing so. This should make them less — not more — appealing from an agency’s perspective.

Second, nonunion contractors and workers are at a severe disadvantage under Sound Transit’s PLA, creating the incentive to opt out altogether. This at least partially explains why unions dominate Sound Transit projects even though union workers make up less than 25 percent of the private construction workforce.

It is ludicrous to give the same unions that are the source of potential labor problems absolute power over Sound Transit’s labor supply.”

Third, the threat of strikes can easily be dispelled by simply hiring a nonunion contractor in the first place.

It is ludicrous to give the same unions that are the source of potential labor problems absolute power over Sound Transit’s labor supply.

If a “union-only” contract creates advantages and reduces costs, union contractors can use this to offer the lowest bid, with or without a PLA. When a well-qualified contractor chooses not to bid because of a PLA, taxpayers lose.

Overall, very few construction and engineering companies have the capacity to bid on large contracts. This is disproportionately true of minority and women-owned businesses, which are more likely to participate as nonunion subcontractors and are less likely to bid on Sound Transit projects.

Rather than remove the PLA cancer that is responsible for this mess, Sound Transit has doubled down with more PLA training and staff — all to ensure union labor remains the only game in town.

A more inclusive, cost-effective model has been used to deliver projects, such as Denver’s Stapleton International Airport, the Maryland Harbor Tunnel and M&T Bank Stadium, where the Baltimore Ravens play. Under such an agreement, both union and nonunion contractors have the freedom to operate in a way that each can deliver the best product, and coordination occurs when needed. Discrimination based on labor affiliation, or lack thereof, is eliminated in the award of contracts.

It is a false narrative that in order to operate more efficiently, we must eliminate choice and freedom for contractors and workers. It’s time for Sound Transit to stop playing political favorites with unions and adopt a better, more competitive plan that serves the public.