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Project labor agreements can help diversify construction work

WASHINGTON — Project labor agreements have been used for decades on large public construction projects ranging from the Hoover Dam to Boston's "Big Dig" and Washington's $611 million Washington Nationals' baseball stadium.

PLAs provide stability on complex projects by setting wages and synchronizing work shifts, schedules and holidays among various groups of workers and contractors. To keep projects moving, they also ban strikes and walkouts and require that labor disputes be resolved through arbitration.

However, PLAs also can improve job opportunities for minorities, females and low-income people who are trying to break into the construction trades.

Washington's baseball stadium PLA helped residents garner a majority of apprentice hours on the site, along with a third of the journeyman-level hires, according to the Laborers' International Union of North America.

The Transportation Equity Network, which advocates for disadvantaged groups in transportation planning, favors PLAs that use portions of the projects' funding to place minorities and women in pre-apprentice programs.

"This would really help to correct this historic disadvantage of women and minorities in construction, but they need to be negotiated in each instance," said Todd Swanstrom, a public policy professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Pre-apprentice programs prepare workers for the formal apprenticeship programs that building trade unions run. Those who complete the pre-training courses are more attractive to unions as potential members and apprentices, said John Gaal, the training director at the Carpenters' District Council of Greater St. Louis and Vicinity.

Working with labor unions and community organizations, the Missouri Department of Transportation used a federal highway-funding provision to establish a pre-apprentice program with the St. Louis carpenters' union. The program enrolls about 60 minority, female and economically disadvantaged residents.

Swanstrom co-authored a 2008 report on how minorities and women were faring in the construction trade in the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas. He found that whatever the racial and gender makeup of the local labor force, white men dominated construction jobs, while blacks and women were employed at rates far below their levels in the overall work force.

In 22 of the cities, Hispanics were employed in the construction industry at rates that were higher than their presence in the overall work force, the study found.


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