In Wisconsin, Bill to Limit PLAs is Another Shot at Labor

The Wisconsin GOP and Gov. Scott Walker have become the poster children in recent years when it comes to an anti-working family agenda. They’re about to strike again. 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has championed legislation that harms working families.

Walker is expected to sign a bill recently passed by the state Assembly and Senate that would prohibit local governments and municipalities from requiring contractors to use project labor agreements – which set wages and working conditions for workers before bidding on a contract.

Walker and his Republican allies, who control both the Assembly and Senate, eliminated collective bargaining rights for most state employees in 2011 and enacted a right-to-work law in 2015. The latest measure passed both the Assembly and Senate on a party-line vote.

“It’s anti-worker, anti-local government,” state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, told Wisconsin Public Radio. “This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on organized labor.”

Project labor agreements help ensure fair wages for workers and give local contractors and businesses a better chance to bid successfully on the work. They provide a higher-skilled workforce – including many IBEW members – along with predictable costs, ensuring projects are finished on time and on budget. They also help keep more of those tax dollars in their communities.

These projects employ IBEW members and are using project labor agreements:

  • A $92.5 million building project for schools in Superior, Wis., that includes a new elementary school.
  • A new arena for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
  • The renovation of Lambeau Field, legendary home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
  •  Northwestern Mutual’s new office tower in Milwaukee.

“When they are used, they are used effectively,” Milwaukee Local 494 Business Manager Dean Warsh said. “But this legislation is a way to go after unions, so they come after us.”

Northwestern Mutual’s new office tower under construction in Milwaukee.

Without them, work often goes to cheaper contractors from outside the area. Wages fall and tax dollars leave the communities instead.

“It’s funny how Scott Walker and the Republicans at the statehouse say Wisconsin is open for business,” Warsh said. “I guess they mean to cut-rate contractors who will build our roads and bridges.”

Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett wasn’t pleased when the Senate passed its version of the bill on Feb. 7.

“Hiring a well-trained, high-quality workforce is a priority for me,” Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Our building and construction trades are critical partners in Milwaukee’s renaissance, which is why I support their contributions. They visibly strengthen our economy.”

Warsh said Wisconsin labor officials are battling a sense of fatigue among union members and their allies. Conservative business interests and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council – which writes model legislation for state legislatures across the country that limits labor’s influence and harms working families — have been so successful in the state under Walker that some union members are tired of fighting back.

But even in likely losing campaigns, resistance is essential, he said. Walker has hinted he will run for a third term as governor in 2018. Local 494 has emailed fliers to members with facts about project labor agreements and why they are important..

“We need to keep people focused and ready to move forward,” he said.

Dan Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council and a former Local 494 business representative, said the fact officials use PLAs on some of the state’s highest-profile projects show their effectiveness.

“Local municipalities should be able to utilize them if they are appropriate for their needs and not have the state over govern and take that option away,” said Bukiewicz, who recently was appointed mayor of Oak Creek, a Milwaukee suburb. “Local officials are better aware of the needs of their communities than state officials in Madison.”