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Controversial union-friendly labor agreement is part of some Silver Line rail work

News that there is a project labor agreement on a portion of the second phase of the Silver Line rail project, has raised eyebrows in some corners.

Those who have been following the battles over construction of the $5.6 billion rail line may recall the fight last summer over whether the labor-friendly provision would be an element of the Phase 2 contract. Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) threatened to withhold $150,000 $150 million in funding for the project unless the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board dropped incentives for including a project labor agreement in the Phase 2 contract.

To critics, including the governor, a PLA on this high-profile project violated at least the spirit of Virginia’s right-to-work law, which prohibits a company and a union from agreeing to a mandate that workers be union members. But those who backed the provision said the PLA was no different than those in place on many state and federal projects — including Phase 1 of the Silver Line project.

The board resisted for months.

PLAs typically ensure certain wages and working conditions while barring strikes and providing managers with flexibility in making work assignments.

Ultimately, McDonnell won. The MWAA board voted 11 to 1 to drop the incentive. 

But it turns out that a PLA is being used for some work on the second phase of the rail project, which will bring Metro service to Washington Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County.

“Clark Foundations, LLC, a subsidiary of Clark Construction Group, LLC, and a partner of Capital Rail Constructors, LLC, has executed a project specific agreement with Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) to help supply labor to the project,” according to an e-mailed statement from Keith Couch, project director for Capital Rail Constructors. Couch added that: “The use of both union and non-union labor has worked successfully for us on many other major projects in this area.”

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton said the governor had no issue with the use of PLAs as long as they were voluntary.

“It has been the Commonwealth’s position all along that PLAs or other labor arrangements are acceptable if such agreements are entered into voluntarily between the employer and the labor union,” he said in an e-mailed response, adding that, “Our concern with the pending procurement for Phase 2 of Dulles Rail were the proposals to make PLAs mandatory or to give some sort of preference in awarding the construction contract to bidders with PLAs. Such arrangements do not meet the letter or spirit of Virginia law and, accordingly, we opposed them.”

Denny Martire, vice president of LiUNA said having a PLA on that portion of the project will guarantee a “steady source of well-trained workers.”

Martire was an MWAA board member at the time of the pivotal vote. While he had backed including the incentive, he ultimately voted to drop the provision.

This post has been updated and corrected.