Is it “discriminatory” for a local government to restrict bids on public construction projects to contractors that work with a union? Some Indiana Republican lawmakers think so.
House Bill 1024 contains the sixth attempt since 2019 to take away the power counties, cities and other local units have to limit bids to employers who have a Project Labor Agreement (PLA). Such agreements typically set workers' pay and other aspects of their working conditions during the project.
Former Republican state lawmaker Matt Bell testified in favor of the bill on behalf of Associated Builders and Contractors of Indiana/Kentucky. He argues PLAs stifle competition.
“By allowing … projects to discriminate based on your affiliation with labor, we're telling 80 percent of the workforce that you are not eligible to participate,” said Bell. “I think the wages are in negotiation between a worker and their employer. My philosophy is that there is not an entity who needs to step in between the two to negotiate those.”
A committee voted Thursday along party lines to advance the bill to the House floor. Democrats and labor advocates opposing the bill say taking away that power flies in the face of the GOP-controlled legislature’s often-stated support for “local control.”
“Speech after speech about local government and making sure that they have the tools that they need and staying out of their way,” said Rep. Ryan Hatfield (D-Evansville). “What happened in the last decade or so that took us from a place where we had trust and belief in our local officials to a place where we seem to want to take away every tool that they've ever had.”
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President Joe Biden issued an executive order in 2022 requiring all large-scale federal construction projects to include labor agreements.
“A lack of coordination among various employers, or uncertainty about the terms and conditions of employment of various groups of workers, can create friction and disputes in the absence of an agreed-upon resolution mechanism. These problems threaten the efficient and timely completion of construction projects undertaken by Federal contractors,” Biden wrote, justifying the executive order. “Project labor agreements are often effective in preventing these problems from developing because they provide structure and stability to large-scale construction projects.”
Pro-PLA groups, like the Indiana State Building and Construction Trades Council, also argue they leave plenty of room for competition, benefit local economies by requiring local laborers be hired and well-paid while ensuring a safe job-site.
Passing committee gives HB 1024 a chance to make it farther than similar bills have in the past. Since 2019, most bills with similar language failed to make it past committee. One did go farther in 2022, making it all the way through the House before dying in the Senate.
The bill’s supporters, like Rep. Matt Hostettler (R-Fort Branch), pushed back against the argument that prohibiting PLAs infringes on local control.
“There are certain things [like] speed limits, educational values, things like that, that are administered at the local level,” Hostettler said. “But we still find a good way to set a standard here at the state level for everyone to follow.”
Currently, contractors on certain state public projects are required to have employees who are in, or have completed, a federally-registered apprenticeship program. Another part of HB 1024 would allow other forms of training to be accepted instead. Hatfield expressed concern that the change in standards would lead to lower-quality work.
“Many of those contractors have incredibly skilled craftspeople who have been trained, who have the capacity and ability to perform all the tasks required of them, but have not been through a U.S. Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship program,” said Bell with the Associated Builders and Contractors of Indiana/Kentucky.
Unlike the labor agreement provision, this part of the bill doesn’t explicitly prohibit local governments from setting stricter training standards for their projects.