WASHINGTON—President Joseph Biden signed an executive order Feb. 4 under which contractors on large federal construction projects will effectively have to build with union labor. 

The order requires all contractors and subcontractors on construction projects in which the federal government pays more than $35 million to enter into project labor agreements (PLAs) “with one or more appropriate labor organizations.”

The White House estimates that the order could affect $262 billion in federal construction contracting, based on figures for the 2021 fiscal year, and improve job quality for the nearly 200,000 workers on those contracts. It does not cover projects financed through grants to non-federal entities, and there are exceptions for emergencies.

Speaking at Ironworkers Local 5’s hall in Upper Marlboro, Md., President Biden said the order “will help defuse problems before they arrive,” improve coordination between contractors and subcontractors, and “guarantee a consistent supply of high-quality, highly trained workers.”

“We’re going to make sure that federal construction projects are staffed with good-paying union jobs,” he added.

“It’s excellent news for the nation’s middle-class and working people,” Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said in a statement to LaborPress. “PLAs are the foundation and cornerstone of middle-class careers with benefits in the construction industry, ensuring workers who lead these consequential projects are highly skilled and paid a fair wage. Importantly, PLAs also help guarantee that projects are completed on-time and within budget, protecting both taxpayers and the integrity of the public trust. President Biden continues to make historic investments and commitments to the nation’s working people.”

The order may have more of an impact in the rest of the country than in the New York area, though. Here, federally funded infrastructure and New York City Housing Authority construction projects are “pretty much union already,” Joe Scopo, organizing director for the Laborers Union’s Cement and Concrete Workers District Council 16, said in a text message to LaborPress.

A 2009 executive order by President Barack Obama encouraged executive agencies to use project labor agreements for large-scale federal construction projects, but did not require them. 

Requiring PLAs will “help raise the standards of all bidders on federal contracts,” the White House said. “Contractors who offer lower wages or do not train their workers will need to raise their standards to compete with other high-wage, high-quality companies. Businesses with well-trained workers will be more likely to bid for and win federal contracts. Well-trained, high quality workers are more productive, completing projects well and on time.”

In the order, President Biden said it will “provide structure and stability to large-scale construction projects.” Construction employers typically do not have a permanent workforce, projects typically involve multiple employers who don’t always coordinate well with each other, and a labor dispute involving one employer can delay the entire project, it explains. “On large-scale projects, which are generally more complex and of longer duration, these problems tend to be more pronounced.”

Project labor agreements are often effective in preventing these problems from developing, the order added. They avoid disruptions by setting up dispute-resolution processes while prohibiting strikes and lockouts. They are also good for business, for project owners, contractors, subcontractors, and small businesses, because all parties on the job make a commitment that it will “proceed efficiently without unnecessary interruptions.”

“President Biden’s latest executive order shows what the American worker has to gain by having a pro-labor president in the White House,” Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), a longtime member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 351, said in a statement. “PLAs also help ensure the responsible stewardship of tax dollars by pre-negotiating wages and benefits for federal construction projects — meaning workers can spend more time working and less time haggling over work conditions. Additionally, workers under a PLA are more likely to have health care — a benefit that has always been important in demanding construction jobs but even more so during the pandemic.”


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