Luzerne County officials hear arguments for and against union labor construction agreements

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | February 25th, 2016 5:32 pm

By Jennifer Learn-Andes


Hazleton area electrical contractor George Hayden urged Luzerne County Council members Tuesday to resist pressure to restore an agreement requiring union labor on county construction projects.

“All we want — all we ever wanted - is a level playing field and when you interrupt that, you no longer have a playing field that’s level,” Hayden, the owner of George J. Hayden, Inc., told the council.

Stephen J. Urban had convinced a majority of his colleagues to get rid of the county’s “responsible contractor agreement” in his last meeting as a councilman Dec. 29, based on criticism that it decreases competition and increases spending on county construction.

The agreement required contractors bidding on general construction and renovation projects over $25,000 to rely heavily on union laborers and skilled trade workers who live in Luzerne County and honor other benefits and working conditions, officials said.

A local union leader made a lengthy presentation to the council last month seeking reinstatement of the agreement, prompting some citizens to coordinate a response from the other side.

Hayden, a non-union contractor, said he won’t bid if there’s an agreement requiring union labor because he built a team of trained workers and wants to use his own employees. The company is celebrating its 41st anniversary because it has a strong workforce of local residents, Hayden said.

Projects involving public funds already require the payment of prevailing wages to workers, which means there’s no reason for an agreement assuring fair wages, he said. Bid bonds and insurance also are required to protect the county if work does not meet expectations, he said.

“It’s discriminatory to me. I am a Luzerne County business,” Hayden said of a requirement to use union labor.

Joe Perpiglia, head of the state’s eastern chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., a national construction industry trade association, also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, saying such agreements usually limit competition and “inflate pricing.”

Councilman Stephen A. Urban told Hayden all bidders on county jobs should be permitted to use their own employees because contractors are familiar with their workers’ training, skill and work ethic.

“You go out and bid on a contract, and you’re told you can’t hire your people, you’ve got to go get other people you know nothing about just because they’re in the union and bring them in on this job? I think that’s unfair to your workers, and it’s unfair to you as a contractor who is ultimately responsible for the quality of the job and any cost overruns,” Urban said.

Warren Faust, president of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council, made the plea to bring back the agreement last month and was granted the opportunity to provide rebuttal Tuesday.

Faust said the union trade employees are highly trained and stressed contractors who are dissatisfied with a union worker can request another union worker until they get the “right fit.”

He said there’s evidence of non-union contractors improperly categorizing job titles or shortchanging the pay of workers on prevailing wage projects, but getting away with it because the impacted workers don’t want to be out of a job. Faust said the state does not have enough inspectors to catch all violations.

“This puts ethics in contracting, where you don’t have somebody from Oklahoma showing up with a ladder on the truck,” Faust said, referring to the project labor agreement.

Hayden said he is not aware of prevailing wage abuse and said such behavior typically “spreads like wildfire” among workers in the construction industry. He said he would expect workers to complain or report instances where they are not paid posted rates.

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