Local union leader urges Luzerne County Council to reconsider contract bidding change

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - jandes@timesleader.com | January 5th, 2016 6:37 pm

By Jennifer Learn-Andes


A local union leader urged the Luzerne County Council Monday to reconsider its recent termination of a “responsible contractor agreement” that had been imposed by prior commissioners in 2009.

This agreement required contractors bidding on general construction and renovation projects over $25,000 to seek union laborers and skilled trade workers, pay them prevailing wages and honor other benefits and working conditions.

Stephen J. Urban convinced a majority of his colleagues to get rid of the agreement in his last meeting as a councilman Dec. 29 based on criticism that it decreases competition and jacks up spending on county construction.

Several nonunion contractors had implored the commissioners to reject the agreement in 2009, while advocates said it would create a level playing field and prevent nonunion contractors from using unskilled or underpaid workers to land contracts.

Warren Faust, president of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, told the council Monday he was “appalled” the council voted to eliminate the agreement without notifying his organization.

The claim that only contractors who use union laborer are allowed to bid on county contracts is “simply not true,” he said.

The agreement contained provisions allowing contractors — union or not — to use some of their own workforce and then hire county residents for the remaining work, he said.

Faust pointed to a $5.25 million exterior courthouse restoration project in recent years that was handled by D.A. Nolt Inc., of Berlin, New Jersey, which is not a union contractor. The company completed the project with a combination of its own workers and skilled workers from Luzerne County union halls, he said.

County Engineer Greg Parrs told the council Dec. 29 that three prospective bidders recently walked out of a pre-bid conference for a prison job when they learned they must use union labor.

“There are a lot of contractors who don’t use union labor who give fair and competitive bids,” Parrs had told the council, estimating projects are costing the county 10 to 30 percent more than necessary.

Faust challenged that percentage.

On publicly bid contracts, 18- to 22 percent of the contract price is labor, he said. All county contracts are covered by state prevailing wage laws, which means contractors would have to incorrectly classify workers or “exploit workers to work for less than a wage the state mandates” to realize a savings of 10- to 30 percent, he said.

Faust said two of the contractors who walked out of the pre-bid conference cited by Parrs had submitted bids on another county roofing project in November that were 42 percent and 94 percent higher than the base bid price of a contractor who honors the responsible contractor agreement.

He said the agreement forces contractors to comply with safety requirements, properly classify and pay workers and use county residents for work funded by county taxpayers.

“Perhaps the contractors that oppose responsible contractor language are not so responsible themselves,” Faust said.

He urged the council to revisit the matter in its next work session.

Eight council members had voted to terminate the agreement, with no votes from Linda McClosky Houck and Tim McGinley. Kathy Dobash, the remaining council member, was absent.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.