Michael Coakley is co-president of C.J. Coakley.

Local taxpayers should be alarmed about a developing Fairfax County Board of Supervisors proposal that would needlessly increase taxpayer-funded construction costs, discourage competition from the local construction industry and steer contracts to out-of-state campaign contributors. This policy would benefit powerful special interests instead of creating opportunities for local certified small, women- and minority-owned businesses and their local employees that want to compete for public works contracts on a level playing field.

At issue is a proposed ordinance that would require controversial government-mandated project labor agreements (PLAs) on certain taxpayer-funded construction projects procured by Fairfax County.

When mandated by governments, PLAs discourage qualified, local, nonunion contractors like my company — which employ 97.5 percent of Virginia’s construction industry — from competing to build projects funded by taxpayer dollars.

Government-mandated PLAs force contractors to follow inefficient union work rules and hire most or all craft workers on a job site from specified union hiring halls and union apprenticeship programs instead of skilled workers and apprentices already employed by companies. That limits the pool of bidders, because nonunion contractors do not want to abandon their existing employees and quality-control practices — key components of a safe and productive workplace — for strangers from union halls governed by unfamiliar rules.

In addition, under PLA mandates, members of Virginia’s construction industry would have to pay unnecessary fees to unions as a condition of employment. Nonunion workers (and some union workers) lose an estimated 20 percent of wages and benefits earned on a PLA project unless they accept union representation, join a specific union, pay membership dues and meet the union benefits plan’s vesting requirements.

Taxpayers lose under PLAs, too. Multiple studies show that government-mandated PLAs raise the final construction costs of building schools by up to 20 percent relative to non-PLA school construction in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Ohio.

The commonwealth simply cannot afford such waste with so many school construction and other infrastructure needs.

For these reasons, Virginia is, for now, among the 25 states that outlaw government-mandated PLAs on public works projects, thereby ensuring fair and open competition on taxpayer-funded construction projects so that the public can get the best possible construction projects at the best possible price.

However, a bill signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in April 2020 rescinded Virginia’s pro-taxpayer statute on May 1. It will result in fewer new schools, libraries, affordable housing, roads, bridges and infrastructure improvements and/or tax hikes or cuts to other important programs and the salaries of public employees.

Special interests — mainly construction union lobbyists and their members, who make up just 2.5 percent of Virginia’s private construction workforce — made passage of pro-PLA and prevailing wage (SB 8/HB 833) legislation a top priority in the 2020 legislative session to gain market share through help from lawmakers.

Construction unions gave $1.68 million in direct contributions to state Democratic Party lawmakers during Virginia’s 2018-2019 election cycle and have contributed $1.177 million so far this cycle, according to campaign filings compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit that monitors campaign contributions from special-interest groups.

In addition to its anti-competitive and costly impact on public works projects in the state, these controversial schemes are expected to result in some ill-informed Virginia counties and cities mandating PLA and prevailing wage policies on local, taxpayer-funded construction projects.

This will ultimately push public works contracts to out-of-state, union-signatory contractors and union members at the expense of local taxpayers and construction businesses and workers.

Virginia’s small, women- and minority-owned contractors will be harmed, because they are predominantly nonunion and will be discouraged from competing for projects subject to these special-interest schemes. Meanwhile, large companies and their unionized workforce from Maryland and other states will have an unfair advantage, disrupting the local market at the expense of the commonwealth’s businesses and skilled construction workforce.

It is not a coincidence that almost 76 percent of this cycle’s $1.177 million in political contributions to Democratic lawmakers have come from out-of-state construction unions with a vested interest in getting Virginia’s lawmakers to stifle competition from local and qualified businesses. Likewise, of the $90,120 in campaign contributions from construction trade unions to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors this election cycle, $61,375 (68 percent) came from out-of-state construction unions.

After the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors should be doing all it can to support our local recovery.

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