Lawsuit seeks to break Building Trades’ hold on city construction contracts

A lawsuit filed in federal court is challenging Philadelphia’s tradition of reserving city construction work for a number of chosen labor unions.

Iron workers help build the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Iron workers help build the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

A lawsuit filed in federal court is challenging Philadelphia’s long-held tradition of reserving city construction work for certain labor unions. But the suit comes from a surprising source: Rival union contractors, teamed with a right-wing, anti-union lawyer.

The April 18 filing takes aim at documents called “project labor agreements” or “PLAs” that the litigants say favors a prominent labor consortium called the Building and Construction Trades Council, a group of 31 locals led by indicted electricians union leader John J. Dougherty.

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While PLAs are traditionally viewed as a kind of protection for organized labor, ensuring work lands with unions, the lawsuit claims they exclude members who aren’t part of the consortium.

Lawyer Wally Zimolong, a Republican who has played a role in anti-union efforts in the past, brought the suit on behalf of groups aligned with the United Steelworkers and the Pennsylvania Heavy and Highway Contractors Bargaining Association. In his description, the city’s PLAs violate the First Amendment, effectively forcing union workers to join favored locals in order to benefit from lucrative city building work.

“The PLA mandates that any individual that wants to work on a project must become a member of the Building Trades unions as a condition of employment,” said Zimolong. “That means if you are a member of the Steelworkers, or any other union that wasn’t cherry-picked by the mayor, you would be compelled to become a member of a different union.”

The suit alleges that PLAs excluded several union contractors — Road-Con, Inc., Neshaminy Constructors, Inc., Loftus Construction, Inc., and PKF-Mark III — from two specific city construction projects. One, the rehab of a portion of 15th Street that spans the disused City Branch rail line and the other a runway repaving project at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

In the filing, Zimolong states that prior mayoral administrations conceived of PLAs as a tool to be used on certain projects, but that the Kenney administration has “imposed a blanket PLA” on city projects over $3 million in value.

Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said that PLAs are not inherently exclusionary.

“Project Labor Agreements allow any entity to bid on a project as long as it agrees to use Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council labor for the execution of the work,” he said.

But the city has already reacted to the suit, removing PLAs from both projects named in the brief. According to Dunn, this action was taken solely to “allow those two urgent projects to move forward without delays from this lawsuit.”

Building Trades spokesperson Frank Keel downplayed the significance of the suit, suggesting it was solely the result of a lost bid.

“Unfortunately, lawsuits are part of doing business these days for the Building Trades and for the construction industry as a whole,” he wrote, in an email. “PLAs matter because they ensure that large-scale projects are delivered safely, on-time and on-budget. No lawsuit can change that immutable fact.”

If the suit advances, it could reshape how the city hires labor for the public works project known as Rebuild, potentially slowing or creating new political challenges for an already troubled and behind-schedule process.

A PLA typically sets standards for wages and includes local hiring mandates, along with other requirements. Advocates argue that the agreements help projects meet schedule and budget goals while ensuring that jobs go to local workers and pay fair wages.

But critics say that PLAs are about politics, not performance, and can limit competition. Most recently in Philadelphia, critics pointed to the agreements as a hindrance to efforts to increase minority participation in city building projects, such as Rebuild. The agreements protect mostly white trade unions, critics charge.

But these critiques have mainly sought to modify PLAs.

The latest suit ultimately seeks an injunction that would bar the use of any PLAs going forward. Zimolong insisted the suit wasn’t designed solely to remove a union protection, even if it may have that effect.

“The goal is to have the City abide by the First Amendment and not condition employment on membership in a specific union and by requiring financial support for the same unions,” he said.

RoadCon suit by on Scribd

Disclosure: Zimolong represented WHYY reporter Ryan Briggs pro bono in a 2018 right-to-know case against the City of Philadelphia.

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