US Labor Dept reviews NH Job Corps building terms

AP News
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Posted: Nov 12, 2009 4:20 PM

Construction of a $35 million federal Job Corps center in New Hampshire, where union workers amount to only a small percentage of the work force, has been stalled over contract language that requires the center be built by union labor.

Planned for Manchester, the center will offer education and vocational training to students, ages 16 to 24. It has been in the works for years and the government wanted to break ground this fall on the six-building complex.

But last month, a Concord-based nonunion firm protested the requirement. And the U.S. Labor Department recently canceled the bidding process to evaluate the "project labor agreement" that requires union workers.

New Hampshire and Wyoming are the only two states without Job Corps centers. Money has been allotted for the Wyoming center. It is scheduled to be complete in 2011.

When asked Thursday if there was a timetable for reopening the bidding process on the Manchester center, Labor Department spokesman Jesse Lawder said, "I don't think it's been established yet. They're looking into the options."

In February, President Barack Obama issued an executive order encouraging federal agencies to have construction contractors and subcontractors enter project labor agreements that require them to negotiate with union officials, recognize union wages and generally abide by collective-bargaining agreements.

The Associated Builders and Contractors, a national trade group, believes the agreement for the Manchester project is the first project labor agreement issued by the federal government since the president's order.

Thursday, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, who had lobbied for the Job Corps center, called the Labor Department's recent decision "just another unnecessary bureaucratic delay to the progress of this critically important project."

"This setback clearly illustrates that the administration's decision to discriminate against successful, independent construction firms because Granite State employees choose to work in a union-free environment simply does not hold water in New Hampshire," he said.

In September, Gregg had urged the department to reconsider its decision, saying that only 8.7 percent of the construction workers in New Hampshire were unionized _ the smallest unionized work force in New England.

Kenneth Holmes, president of North Branch Construction, which filed the protest, said he wants his company to get the job but wouldn't be able to under a project labor agreement.

"I wouldn't have been able to have put my employees on the payroll, on the job. Or I would've had to not only pay my guys and pay their benefits, but I'd have to have doubled up and paid benefits into the union halls for benefits that my employees would never receive because they're not union," he said.

Holmes said he was hopeful the government would reopen the bidding process without the conditional agreement.

Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said project labor agreements in construction have existed for at least 50 years. He said they are made on the front end so that work won't be disrupted during the course of the project.

"The federal government believes huge projects involving many millions of dollars could be delayed or ended if there's a dispute about whether or not the workers will be represented by unions or what their wage will be," he said.

He noted, however, that the proportion of the work force in construction unions has diminished. And while the agreements are supposed to provide stability during construction, disputes over them delay the projects "and make them messier," he said.