By Jason Stein
Local governments in Wisconsin could no longer require contractors to reach agreements with labor unions to work on taxpayer-funded projects such as bridges or stadiums, under a bill that came before an Assembly committee Tuesday.
If approved, the bill would continue a six-year trend in which Republicans in the Capitol have reduced or limited the power of unions in the state. The bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield), told the Assembly Labor Committee that he wanted construction firms and other businesses to be able to bid on taxpayer-funded projects even if the companies haven't reached project labor agreements with unions.
"Requiring PLAs, however, discourages many contractors from participating in public (projects)," Hutton said. "This is a free-market issue."
These agreements drew scrutiny from conservatives when the Milwaukee Bucks and firms involved in building the team's new arena reached labor agreements last year setting wages and other conditions with unions and community groups. State and local taxpayers are covering half the cost of the $500 million arena.
Republicans who back Assembly Bill 24 say it protects taxpayers by ensuring that companies doing acceptable work at a good price can compete for public projects such as a road or government building.
Democrats said the bill was another example of state GOP lawmakers seeking to limit the power of local governments in Wisconsin while they at the same time ask the Republican Congress and President Donald Trump to give more local control to state governments.
Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said that taxpayers get the best value when construction firms use skilled union workers making good wages. She said construction projects had been built using these agreements around the country including Disney World, Hoover Dam and the Marquette Interchange project in Milwaukee
"Make no mistake, PLAs have built our country," Bloomingdale told the committee. "Why would anyone want to see local governments restrained from using an important tool that leads to projects being done on time, on budget and local people being put to work?"
These labor agreements can include a range of provisions, including minimum wages for workers, overtime rules, protections against work stoppages and a requirement that the construction company or business use workers represented by a union.
John Mielke, president of the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, a trade group representing nonunion construction firms, said that local governments could still require many of the same standards now found in project labor agreements through other means.
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