Politically Thinking: Controversy builds over union labor

A controversy brewing about the conditions governing bids from contractors that would like to build the new Champlain Bridge provides a window into the politics of labor issues in New York state and in Vermont. The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) is the lead agency overseeing the bridge project. NYSDOT is considering including a “Project Labor Agreement” (PLA) as part of the bid conditions. The PLA would require contractors to give the highest priority to unionized workers in hiring for the project and to contribute to union benefit funds.

New York, a state with strong construction unions, typically includes a PLA as part of public works projects. Almost all contractors that work for NYSDOT are union shops. Vermont, which has a much smaller number of unionized contractors, typically does not include a PLA in its bid packages for road and bridge work.

The Champlain Bridge project involves three entities — the federal government, which will provide 80 percent of the funding, and the two states, which will each pay 10 percent of the cost. The federal government often defers to the states on PLA matters, but that approach may not work for the Champlain Bridge, since New York and Vermont approach the PLA issue differently. NYSDOT wants to have a PLA requirement in the contract, which would mean that most of the work would be done by unionized contractors based in New York. The Vermont Agency of Transportation would like to see more flexible standards that would allow non-union contractors from Vermont to bid for parts of the work.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, New York has the highest percentage of union workers of any state in the country. In 2009, 27 percent of New York’s work force was represented by unions. In the same year, 14 percent of the Vermont work force was unionized.

The largest unions in Vermont represent predominantly white-collar workers in the public sector: the Vermont National Education Association and the Vermont State Employees’ Union. While these unions are important parts of the Vermont Democratic party’s political base, they tend not to be concerned with the same issues as construction unions. In fact, when union members from the construction trades came to the Statehouse to urge that Vermont Yankee be kept open, they received more support from Republicans than from Democrats.

For Vermont’s public employee unions and their Democratic supporters, the high priority issues are funding, salaries and benefits for education and human services programs. With few unionized construction workers in the Green Mountain State, Vermont transportation officials tend to hear more often from contractors that want to keep project costs low, and profits high, than from union leaders who want to keep wages and benefits high. This is especially the case when there is a Republican administration in Montpelier.

New York certainly has large and influential public employee unions. Additionally, though, the New York work force includes millions of unionized workers in construction, manufacturing, and other blue-collar occupations. Construction and manufacturing unions are a much more important part of the New York Democratic party’s political and contributor base than is the case in Vermont. With a Democratic administration in power in Albany, and a new governor of New York to be elected this year, it is no surprise that NYSDOT would like to include a PLA favorable to New York-based unionized labor in the Champlain Bridge bid documents.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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