Northern Virginia business leaders are calling on the authority overseeing the 23-mile Metrorail extension to Loudoun County to scrap plans for a deal with organized labor that they say will drive up costs and dampen competition for non-union contractors.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) has threatened to sue the authority, saying a mandatory pro-union agreement is at odds with the state’s right-to-work law.

And a group of Republican state delegates from Virginia’s Washington suburbs is demanding an investigation of the decision by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board to seek a labor agreement, because one of the board’s members is a top union official whose workers stand to benefit from such a deal.

“Should MWAA move forward with this ill-advised measure, it will discriminate against non-union construction firms . . . discourage competition and ultimately greatly increase the overall cost,” Dels. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), Barbara J. Comstock (R-Fairfax) and Thomas A. Greason (R-Loudoun) wrote in a letter to Cuccinelli, requesting an investigation of the board’s decision.

The embattled airports board is already under scrutiny for its oversight of the multibillion-dollar rail line and the rising cost of the second leg of the project. Debate over the labor agreement has been overshadowed by protests from elected officials over the board’s vote in favor of building an underground Metro station at Dulles International Airport, which is more expensive than an aboveground option.

At issue now is the board’s decision this spring that would require the lead contractor on the job to sign a labor agreement setting wages, benefits, work schedules and other conditions. Board Chairman Charles D. Snelling, who backed the 11 to 2 decision, said the criticism is premature because the authority has not yet drafted the labor provisions.

Board member Dennis L. Martire, the labor leader who pushed for the agreement, said his participation was appropriate. The opposition, he said, is based on ideology — not experience.

“The fight here is more political than it is about building a project on time and on budget. That’s the problem,” said Martire, a vice president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

Project labor agreements

There is broad debate and competing research about the benefits and drawbacks of project labor agreements.

Fred B. Kotler of Cornell University’s school of Industrial and Labor Relations said labor agreements are essentially “job site constitutions” that provide cost savings by establishing predictable schedules and minimal work disruptions. Many factors, such as market conditions, affect the number of bidders, and Kotler said there is no evidence that such agreements translate into fewer bids or higher costs.

Opponents, including the Associated Builders and Contractors, point to studies that show labor agreements can drive up the cost of construction between 12 percent and 18 percent. The trade association, which represents merit-shop firms, says making such an agreement mandatory would ensure that most of the rail line jobs go to out-of-state union members.

The airports authority says such concerns are unfounded based on its experience building the first phase of the project, now underway through Tysons Corner. The lead contractor, Dulles Transit Partners, voluntarily negotiated a labor deal that a spokesman said has provided flexibility to schedule weekend shifts, for instance, without additional cost and has prevented work stoppages.

The voluntary agreement in the first phase generally requires that the lead contractor first seek referrals for workers from union halls. If the unions are unable to provide a worker within 48 hours, then the contractor can look elsewhere.

More than half of the value of the subcontracts awarded (58 percent) in the first phase of the project has gone to nonunion contractors, according to Dulles Transit Partners. And 60 percent of the value of those contracts has gone to businesses and contractors based in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

In a radio interview last month, Cuccinelli said he was keeping tabs on the airports authority’s plans and is prepared to challenge any agreement that would require union-only workers. “I’m sort of hair-trigger-loaded to deal with that if the problem pops its head up,” Cuccinelli said in an interview on WMAL.

Philip G. Sunderland, general counsel for the authority, said he expects that any agreement would make it “expressly clear that union membership may not be a requirement of any employee” and “make clear that the subcontractors do not need to be union-shop employers.”

“This notion that there is one-size-fits-all and that it requires everybody to be a union worker,” he said, “is absolutely not true.”

The ‘labor guy’

Project labor agreements were a source of controversy in the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement project that also required regional cooperation. Former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, wanted a labor deal, and Virginia’s then-governor, James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, argued against it. Maryland ultimately abandoned its plans when the Bush administration issued an executive order prohibiting labor agreements on projects that receive federal money. The Obama administration has since issued an order encouraging such agreements.

Before the board’s vote in April, Martire was the leading champion on the board for requiring a labor agreement for the second phase of the project. He made no secret of his advocacy, distributing to board colleagues a paper he wrote in 2008 on the benefits of labor deals, which he said would save money for taxpayers and those who use the Dulles Toll Road.

Opponents of the labor agreement say Martire should have recused himself from the vote because of his day job with the union, which was one of the labor organizations that signed the agreement for phase one.

Martire said he was cleared to vote by the board’s attorney and his personal attorney, who reviewed the authority’s ethics policy. The rank-and-file union members who may work on the second phase of the project, he said, pay into health-care and pension plans separate from his umbrella organization. Local affiliates, he said, do pay a fee to the parent organization that he described as “pennies on the dollar. It’s so inconsequential. I don’t get a raise, a bonus or stock options.”

Despite the pushback from opponents, Martire said he has no regrets about his participation. One of the reasons he said he asked former Virginia governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, to appoint him to the board was “to give the working person a voice on these issues.”

“Everyone in the room knows I’m the ‘labor guy,’ ” he said. “I never want to give up my right to vote on an issue that’s near and dear to my heart. If people don’t like our policy, change the policy.”