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Philly Building Trades angling to ensure jobs on massive Norristown courthouse renovation

Project Labor Agreements, which essentially ensure that work goes to union members, are not that common in the Philadelphia suburbs. But that could be changing.

The Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, which is the county seat. Montgomery is one of the nation's wealthiest counties, but Norristown has lagged behind.
The Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, which is the county seat. Montgomery is one of the nation's wealthiest counties, but Norristown has lagged behind.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Montgomery County is embarking on what many say will be its biggest capital project ever, and the Philadelphia Building Trades wants to make sure its members get a piece of the massive pie.

The labor group, which comprises 50 unions and is run by the politically powerful electricians union head John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, is lobbying the Montgomery County commissioners to approve a project labor agreement for courthouse renovation in Norristown, a major part of a 10-year project whose estimated costs have increased to more than $400 million. The work includes renovating One Montgomery Plaza, constructing a new justice center, and expanding a nearby public park. A PLA, as it is known, sets standards for wages, includes local hiring requirements, and regulates how disputes are resolved. PLAs, common in the city but not in the suburbs, also require that contractors use union labor.

But these agreements can be polarizing.

Supporters say that PLAs help projects stay on schedule and on budget by qualified, local workers. The Trades have also made the case that PLAs keep “bad actors” -- contractors who don’t pay their workers a living wage -- from getting public contracts. A report by the Keystone Research Center, commissioned by the Trades, said labor laws and standards were “routinely violated” by contractors in the Philadelphia area.

Those who oppose PLAs say the agreements are about politics, not labor standards, and that they limit competition. Critics also contend that the jobs ultimately go to the largely white male workforce that makes up the Trades. (Recall last spring’s fight over Rebuild, the mayor’s $500 million project to revitalize recreation centers and libraries, whose first phase of construction Council refused to approve because it didn’t think the Rebuild diversity agreement was “iron-clad.”)

Ultimately, for the Trades, a PLA is about getting work for its members. It’s common in Philadelphia to see building-trade unions lobby the government for bills that will result in work for union members. The Sheet Metal Workers, for example, has been pushing for years a contentious bill that would require annual inspections of fire devices found in most high-rise buildings, inspections that would require union members be hired.

Why PLAs could become more common in the suburbs

Montgomery County has not had a PLA with any of its capital projects in recent memory, said Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County commissioners.

But PLAs might soon become more common in the suburbs.

For one, PLAs follow political parties. Areas with more Democrats are more likely to be on board. The suburbs have been moving to the left for the last two decades; Montgomery County gained more than 7,000 registered Democrats in the last year alone.

In several Montgomery County towns, “responsible contractor ordinances,” which require that contractors meet a number of standards, including running a government-approved “Class A apprenticeship," recently have been adopted. Critics liken them to PLAs, saying they limit competition and divert work to unions. The Associated Builders-Contractors Eastern Pennsylvania chapter, a frequent and vocal critic of PLAs, has sued Plymouth Township; West Norriton Township; and Colonial School District, which includes Conshohocken, Plymouth and Whitemarsh Townships, saying the ordinances are discriminatory.

In 2014, the city’s Local 98 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers merged with the suburban electricians union — comprising Montgomery County and parts of Chester and Bucks -- nearly tripling its footprint, said Bob Cresswell, assistant business manager at Local 98. He said most of its work is for pharmaceutical companies.

Dougherty’s political power — which has not waned, at least in terms of dollars, despite an ongoing FBI investigation — will likely influence the Norristown decision, as well. His IBEW Local 98 donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Gov. Tom Wolf’s reelection campaign (Wolf sent a letter of support for the PLA, as did a slew of Pennsylvania politicians, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey [D., Pa.]). Local 98 also gave $7,500 to the Montgomery County Democratic Committee in 2018, according to state campaign finance records.

Frank Keel, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Building Trades, said contributions to the Democratic Committee weren’t tied to its efforts to win a PLA. “We support officials and candidates who have demonstrated their support of the labor movement," he said.

What the commissioners think

Arkoosh said it was “a little premature” to answer questions about a possible PLA because the courthouse project would not go out for bid for at least another year. She would want to consider whether a PLA would add value to the current process, which, she noted, has worked well over the last five years, when the county completed $170 million in capital projects.

She also said that she wanted to make sure that a PLA wouldn’t open the county up to legal challenges.

Commissioner Joe Gale, though, has been outspoken about opposing a PLA.

Gale, the commission’s lone Republican, said he is concerned that an agreement would exclude contractors in a process that has already struggled to find qualified firms to bid for jobs. For the $23.3 million worth of contracts to renovate the facade of One Montgomery Plaza, four contractors applied for the general contracting request for proposals and only one firm each responded to the HVAC and electrical RFPs.

He also pointed to Scudder Falls, a Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission project to replace the I-95 bridge that connects Bucks to Mercer County in New Jersey, which was under a PLA and had only one bidder. In January 2017, two nonunion contractors told the Inquirer they did not bid because of the PLA.

At a commissioner’s meeting in early December, Gale said he would withhold his support for the Norristown project budget if, among other things, his fellow commissioners supported a PLA.

Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.