Rodney Alexander’s Expensive Pro-Union Vote

Louisiana’s 5th District Congressman Rodney Alexander (R-Quitman), who was originally elected as a Democrat, has compiled a record most conservatives would be satisfied with in his time in Washington.

Alexander’s lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is a 79.5, including a 100 percent score in 2010. The Club For Growth rated him an 85 in 2009, the last year they’ve issued a scorecard for.

And as the dean of Louisiana’s House delegation, Alexander’s leadership is being counted on to deliver a solution to the difficult challenge of redrawing the state into six congressional districts rather than the seven it currently holds.

But a heretofore-unnoticed vote late Friday night as the House was attempting to pass its Continuing Resolution on the federal budget has Alexander in hot water with a good portion of his constituents and the business community throughout the state.

Amendment 166, sponsored by Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH), would have provided that

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to enter into, after the date of the enactment of this Act, a Government contract that requires a project labor agreement.”

Project labor agreements are a vehicle by which terms typically favorable to unions are agreed upon between management and labor representatives in advance of bids being let on construction contracts. The PLA’s are technically made between unions and contractors, but they’re actually negotiated between the unions and the owner of the project – and then laid down as a term to which contractors bidding on that project must abide.

As such, PLA’s in government contracts have the effect of dramatically hindering the competitiveness of non-union “merit shop” contractors. They don’t officially exclude non-union contractors, but the practicality is that if you’re a merit shop and your employees aren’t in a union you may have to change the way you operate in order to do work let under a PLA. And the construction industry as a whole is very much opposed to their inclusion in federal government projects – particularly given that only about 14.5 percent of the construction industry is unionized. In Louisiana, it’s an even more hot-button issue considering that union membership among workers in the private construction industry in this state is only 2.8 percent. Only Oklahoma (1.9 percent) and Texas (2.7 percent) are less unionized in the construction business.

No surprise, then, that President Obama instituted a “recommendation” that PLA’s be included in all government contracts larger than $25 million upon his inauguration in 2009. Obama’s predecessor banned PLA’s from federal work, period.

This wasn’t exactly the smartest decision for the federal government’s budgetary continence. A study released in September of last year by the Beacon Hill Institute concluded that had Obama’s Executive Order 13502 on PLA’s been in effect in 2008 it would have cost the government anywhere from $1.6 billion to $2.6 billion. Another study in 2006 indicated that non-union contractors in New York who did work under PLA’s saw their employees’ take-home pay drop by 20 percent on those projects – largely because a typical union-negotiated PLA will mandate contributions to the unions’ pension funds, even if non-union workers are on the job. Those non-union workers, then, are involuntarily contributing to a pension fund that they’ll get no benefits from.

After Obama issued the executive order bringing PLA’s back from the dead, the entire Louisiana Republican delegation signed a letter opposing it. That included Alexander.

But when Guinta’s amendment to reset PLA policy back to the Bush era came to the House floor late Friday night, the vote was an excruciating 210-210. It failed by one vote.

There were 26 Republicans in all voting against the amendment, including prominent GOP members like Thaddeus McCotter, Don Young and Paul Ryan.

Alexander was the only Louisiana Republican voting against it.

We asked Rep. Alexander about his vote. He offered us this statement…

“A common misunderstanding in relation to this current Executive Order is that it ‘mandates’ the use of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) on large-scale construction projects. This is not so. The first line of the Executive Order distinctively states ‘this order does not require an executive agency to use a project labor agreement on any construction project, nor does it preclude the use of a project agreement in circumstances not covered by this order…’

“The majority of my life I have worked in the construction industry and I can attest it’s not an easy day’s work.  I believe fair wages, benefits, overtime pay, hours and working conditions should be provided to these hard workers – especially on major construction projects. In addition, PLAs prohibit strikes and ensure that projects remain on schedule and within budget.

“Moreover, it is my belief that reversing this Executive Order could severely impede critical government construction projects awaiting funding.”

The Congressman’s defense of his vote isn’t likely to smooth over the hard feelings his constituents in the construction business will harbor. First, the fact that Executive Order 13502 doesn’t “mandate” PLA’s is cold comfort considering who’s letting the contracts. Obama appointees are going to be as pro-union as humanly possible, and Alexander knows it.

Second, it’s a bit insulting to suggest that the 97 percent of construction workers in Louisiana who aren’t in unions are somehow exploited if PLA’s aren’t put in effect. If they were, a lot more of them would be in unions in the first place.

And third, given the high costs and the rough economy it’s a heavy lift to say high-cost PLA projects will move while lower-cost projects won’t.

The scuttlebutt is that several major players in Louisiana’s construction industry are declaring war on Alexander over the vote, and recruitment for a challenger in 2012 is beginning now. The level of anger about what is perceived as a stab in the back is palpable.

It’s something of a shame, because Alexander’s overall record is a good one and it’s getting better. But the PLA vote, coming as it did as a total surprise to the industry and owing to the fact it proved decisive in a 210-210 result, will likely cost him support from a key constituency going forward. Whether it affects his electability in future cycles will be an interesting question.



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