How union workers in one downstate Illinois community fought back against an effort to block Project Labor Agreements

Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) are agreements between a governmental body, whether it be the federal government, a state government, or a local government, and one or more labor unions that gives the unions the ability to collectively bargain for wages and benefits for workers on a publicly-funded project, such as road construction or construction of government buildings.

In Glen Carbon, Illinois, a coal mining community-turned-St. Louis, Missouri suburb in Madison County, Illinois, workers had to fight for their right to a PLA after anti-union forces tried to repeal an ordinance authorizing PLAs not long after the original ordinance was enacted.

On June 9th of this year, the Glen Carbon village board (Glen Carbon is legally incorporated as a village under Illinois law) voted to require PLAs on village construction projects by a 4-2 vote, despite the fact that the village president, Rob Jackstadt, has publicly opposed PLAs. Jackstadt responded to the vote for PLAs for scheduling a vote to repeal the pro-PLA ordinance for July 14, and that’s when the unions showed up before the Glen Carbon village board to tout the benefits of PLAs.

The unions’ primary argument in favor of PLAs was that they prevent labor stoppages from delaying work on public projects. Mark Johnson, the president of Operating Engineers Local 520, cited an example of union workers working without a PLA on a private-sector construction project (specifically, a Sam’s Club bulk-item store in Edwardsville) in his defense of PLAs:

You’re looking at 11 labor agreements trying to function on the same job site…It works, but it doesn’t work as well as these PLAs do. Instead of 11 agreements, you have one blanket agreement covering everybody.

Another argument that the unions used in defense of PLAs is that workers on projects covered by a PLA are paid more than non-union workers in the same type of work. Raymond Hunt, an ironworker from Glen Carbon, said this before his hometown’s village board:

The unions are the best thing going…They take care of their people. The non-union people – they work for nothing. They can be fired in a second. If the boss doesn’t like what they’re doing, doesn’t like them personally, they just get rid of them. I’ve seen a lot of it happen. The union people are dedicated and do a good job.

Only two people showed up at the Glen Carbon village board meeting to argue the anti-PLA position. One of them, Jamie Wilkinson, was an official of some kind for Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC), a trade association that has backed Republican politicians and publicly opposed union construction. Wilkinson publicly dissed union workers by saying that he thought that they were not the only qualified labor force.

Thanks in no small part to the brilliant campaign waged by unions and union workers to keep PLAs in Glen Carbon, the Glen Carbon village board voted 4-2 to keep the pro-PLA ordinance they had enacted a little more than a month earlier on the books. PLAs result in fewer workplace disputes and put more take-home pay in the pockets of hard-working workers.

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