Project-Labor Agreement Bill Provides First Fireworks Of Lege Session

Monday’s session at the Louisiana legislature made for more theater than expected, as a bill supported by the state’s construction industry to strengthen right-to-work protections dodged what could have been a procedural bullet in Senate committee assignments.

The bill, SB 76 by Sen. Danny Martiny (R-Kenner), would ban government impositions of project labor agreements (PLA’s) in taxpayer-funded projects in Louisiana. PLA’s are agreements in construction projects which establish rules on pay scales, working conditions, benefits and the like, and typically they’re agreed to in advance by the entity letting the contract – which in the case of the projects envisioned by Martiny’s bill would be governmental entities, or more specifically the politicians heading them up – and union representatives. The bill would essentially preserve the non-union character of state construction projects, particularly given that better than 97 percent of Louisiana’s private-sector work force is not unionized.

Supporters of the bill are optimistic for its passage. Currently, the state doesn’t use PLA’s in its projects and hasn’t used them in some time. Codifying a PLA ban for all government work in Louisiana would insure that local governments – in places, for example, where union locals might be able to turn out enough vote in low-turnout police jury or parish council elections to get a friendly Democrat majority – wouldn’t institute them.

The effect of a PLA in a place like Louisiana wouldn’t just be to promote union membership. As it turns out, there isn’t a union general contractor within 500 miles of Louisiana big enough to handle a decent-sized government project like an office building or new high school. That means a contract with a PLA attached would likely mean out-of-state contractors making up the bidder list. Non-union contractors can bid on projects with PLA’s, but they generally don’t – for lots of reasons, one of them being that PLA’s often provide for contributions to union benefit programs when non-union contractors would prefer to just pay their employees rather than subsidize people who don’t work for them.

In any event, Martiny has more than just some policy considerations to pitch to the 22 other Republicans in the state senate as he attempts to move the bill. After all, back in February a similar piece of legislation came up in Congress and failed on a tie vote thanks to a few untimely absences by GOP congressmen. But included in the nays was 5th District of Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-Quitman), whose pro-union vote has become something of a cautionary tale in GOP circles given rumors that he has earned himself a well-funded challenger from the right next year. No public opponent has emerged against Alexander yet, but Hayride sources say it’s just a matter of time and Alexander is about to get the fight of his political life – and the PLA vote was the catalyst.

Alexander’s troubles serve as a backdrop, then, for what is expected to be strong Republican support for the bill. But so far it has already generated obstacles. When Martiny filed the bill, it was immediately placed by Senate President Joel Chaisson, the Democrat presiding over a 23-16 Republican majority in the legislature’s upper body, into the Transportation Committee chaired by Joe McPherson (D-Woodworth). Martiny wanted it in the Senate’s Labor Committee chaired by a Republican, Neil Riser of Columbia. Supporters of the bill expressed concern that Chaisson’s decision to put the bill in Transportation was an attempt to kill it, though it’s speculated that the real concern comes in the House, where the Labor committee chaired by Rep. Eric Ponti (R-Baton Rouge) is a much friendlier venue than the Transportation committee chaired by Rep. Nita Hutter (R-Chalmette). If the Senate bill moved to the House through Transportation, it would have to start in Hutter’s committee. Supporters would rather have Ponti pushing it through a friendlier committee in that house.

So on Monday, Martiny made a motion when the bill was introduced on the Senate floor to move it to Labor.

That’s when the fireworks began (starting at about 4:25 in the linked video with Martiny’s motion). McPherson rose to object to Martiny’s motion, griping about lobbyists and “powerful contractors” while arguing that since the bill would come under Title 38 of the state’s Revised Statutes, which has to do with public works projects, it belongs in the Transportation Committee.

The Democrat also made reference to “pencils stuck in the ceiling from the last time the contractors did something like this,” which was an allusion to the fight to pass the right-to-work statute in 1976 where 15,000 union members descended on the Capitol and a bomb was set off in the chamber. McPherson also took a shot at what he insinuated were Martiny’s lack of respect for the rules, a statement interpreted by some observers as an attack on the latter’s prospective candidacy for Chaisson’s job when he and McPherson will both be term-limited out of the body next year.

“I’m glad I won’t be here,” he said.

Martiny answered that the rules say he’s entitled to make a motion to move the bill to Labor, and since it’s a labor-relations bill the substance bears a far closer relationship to that committee.

Martiny won the day, as the bill was moved to Labor on a 19-12 vote. Two Republicans were in the 12. One was Robert Adley (R-Benton), who is expect to support the bill but wanted to work it in the Transportation committee of which he’s a member, and the other was Sherri Cheek (R-Shreveport), whose vote was considered a bit less friendly to its passage. Cheek, who has been targeted for criticism by some of the Tea Party groups around the state for some rather unorthodox votes as a GOP legislator, is the subject of a rumored challenge from the right this fall. A union-friendly vote on SB 76 might well inflame opposition in a similar manner to Alexander’s rumored prospects.

That said, the seven-member Labor Committee isn’t a slam-dunk to move the bill. The committee has four Republicans – Riser, Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe), Martiny and Cheek – and three Democrats – Francis Thompson (D-Delhi), Edwin Murray (D-New Orleans) and Rob Marrioneaux (D-Livonia). Riser, Walsworth and Martiny are locks to support it. The question is how many of the other four will vote against it, say silent or support it.

On the Senate floor, should the bill make it there, it’s expected to pass. Ditto for the House.

Which leads to perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the bill’s circumstances in this session – namely, the whereabouts of Gov. Bobby Jindal with respect to its passage. One simply can’t imagine Jindal, seen as a pro-business Republican and billed as a strong conservative, not supporting it. After all, there is a 26 percent unemployment rate in the construction industry nationally, and perhaps the main reason Louisiana’s figure isn’t quite that horrendous is our right-to-work status. With the almost nonexistent union constituency for a Republican up for re-election this fall one would expect vigorous, enthusiastic support from Jindal for the bill given the fact that three extremely powerful conservative business lobbies – the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Associated Building Contractors of Louisiana and Associated General Contractors of Louisiana have all come out in favor of it to one degree or another (LABI and ABC in particular favor the bill).

But SB 76 was not included in Jindal’s legislative package released Tuesday, and calls to the governor’s staff on the bill went unanswered – possibly thanks to the Easter holiday. Supporters of the bill are disappointed in his silence in any event, which indicates a potential missed opportunity for the governor to shore up support from a friendly – and powerful – constituent group.

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