By Michael Moore, St. Paul Union Advocate editor
In a case whose outcome could set a precedent elsewhere, the radical right is trying to destroy construction workers’ labor protections, in federal court.
Their vehicle: A lawsuit, filed last month by a non-union contractors’ association and a right-wing legal foundation in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, charging that Project Labor Agreements – and specifically one the Minneapolis Public Schools signed with the city’s building and construction trades council – unconstitutionally violate contractors’ rights.
The lawsuit is in line with the long offensive in recent years by right-wing legal funds. They’re waging a shadowy campaign in courtrooms across the country to strip working people of their freedom to join together and negotiate a fair return on their labor.
That campaign took aim at members of Minnesota’s building trades unions.
The non-union contractors’ group, the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and one member, Waconia-based Laketown Electric, is suing the school system. Their complaint, filed March 13, argues the district’s PLA breaks Laketown’s 1st Amendment free speech rights.
MPS negotiated its PLA with the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council in 2004. All construction firms seeking contracts to build or repair any of the district’s facilities must agree to the terms of the PLA.
Among those terms: Hiring highly skilled tradespeople, sometimes from a union hiring hall, and paying into an established, high-quality health and benefit fund maintained by building trades unions and their signatory contractors.
Attorneys from the big-business and right-wing financed California-based Pacific Legal Foundation, speaking for ABC and the non-union firm. argue that’s a violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to free speech, due process and equal treatment under the law.
Brendan Cummins, an attorney at Minneapolis-based Cummins and Cummins, LLP, who has worked with PLAs for decades, said the lawsuit’s arguments are “ideologically driven” and not based in fact.
“They’re claiming the PLA discriminates against non-union contractors by precluding them from bidding and winning work on school projects,” Cummins said. “That is false. Union and non-union contractors have bid on and won work in the Minneapolis Public Schools.”
That includes contractors from the non-union industry group suing the school district, Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Cummins said. Dozens of non-union contractors have won bids from MPS since the project labor agreement went into effect 15 years ago, according to Minneapolis Building Trades President Dan McConnell.
“PLAs ensure a steady supply of high-quality, well-trained labor” he added. “Most of the major projects in Minnesota and around the country are done under PLAs and for good reason because they ensure the quality of labor you need and they ensure the work gets done on time and on or under budget.”
“Anyone can bid on and work on these jobs under a PLA, both union and non-union,” McConnell said.
Property owners, developers and governments enter into PLAs to ensure fair wage and benefit standards on construction projects. The agreements establish terms and conditions for construction employees and contractors on a project, from wages and benefits to overtime pay, grievance procedures, drug testing, holidays and more.
By setting those terms and conditions at the outset, project owners make their labor costs more predictable, weed out irresponsible bidders and ensure labor peace for the entirety of the project. Several studies show projects built under PLAs are more likely to be completed on time, within budget and with quality construction.
PLAs are commonly used on large-scale construction projects like hospitals and pro-sports stadiums. In one recent example, the federal National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, part of the Homeland Security Department used a prior agreement with North America’s Building Trades Unions to sign “in essence a PLA” worth $711.7 million for a new western headquarters in St. Louis, the Labor Tribune reported.
“This project will be built 100% union, creating hundreds of local jobs, and we’re super happy about that,” St. Louis building trades Executive Secretary-Treasurer John Stiffler said.
In the Twin Cities, “PLAs have been used successfully on many important high-profile projects in Minnesota: U.S. Bank Stadium and the 35W Bridge just to name a few,” McConnell said. “We have a track record of building large-economic-impact projects on time and on budget, and with a workforce that reflects the diversity of our state.”
“We help build communities and grow our economy.”
Laketown Electric is hardly the first non-union contractor to claim discrimination as a result of a PLA. But past legal precedent is not on its side, at least in Minnesota.
When a non-union contractor challenged the PLA governing the Rochester Civic Center development in 1999, Cummins helped represent the Southeast Minnesota Building Trades all the way to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. That court, Cummins said, heard many of the same arguments Laketown is making now.
“Supposedly, non-union contractors can’t bid. Supposedly, everyone’s got to become a union member,” Cummins said. “That’s not true. Anyone can successfully bid and be awarded work, provided they agree to abide by the PLA.”
Still, the backing of an out-of-state legal fund indicates this case is about more than the Minneapolis schools’ building projects. And the plaintiffs’ free-speech argument has a disturbingly familiar ring to it. The right wing used the same “free speech interference” claim to win the infamous Janus case by the usual 5-4 ideological split at the U.S. Supreme Court.
That ruling, saying paying agency fees violate non-members’ free speech rights, makes every single one of the nation’s six million state and local government workers a potential “free rider,” able to use public unions’ services without paying one red cent for them. The right used Janus in its wide-ranging campaign to “de-fund the left” by destroying unions financially.
Laketown’s attorneys argue that requiring non-union contractors, as a condition of working on public projects, to offer benefits through the union-sponsored funds amounts to a violation of their free speech rights. They claim unions’ benefit funds spend money on “speech activities” like politics and union advocacy, whether or not contractors agree with it.
That’s already against the law, Cummins said.
“The PLA only authorizes contributions to benefit funds that directly benefit the employee,” he said.
“I believe this is part of an upsurge in cases doing what Justice Kagan warned about in her dissent in Janus,” Cummins said. “They’re attempting to weaponize the 1st Amendment against working people. And it’s focusing on government agencies – that’s really where they’re focusing their attack.”