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Bias at the Big House

WHAT DO YOU call a policy that only allows workers who belong to a certain organization to get all the jobs? Discrimination.

WHAT DO YOU call a policy that only allows workers who belong to a certain organization to get all the jobs? Discrimination.

Yet that's exactly what the csate is practicing by requiring a union-only "project labor agreement" (known as a PLA) for the $400 million expansion of Graterford Prison.

For those not familiar with the PLA term, it is an agreement imposed on a project which requires that only certain workers - union members - be hired for the jobs.

In Pennsylvania, that means 80 percent of the construction work force will be barred from this project because they have chosen not to join a union.

PLAs serve as yet another barrier for small businesses, including those owned by women and minorities, which create the bulk of our nation's jobs and pay a significant chunk of the taxes used to fund projects like the one at Graterford Prison. For local minority- and female-owned firms, whose employees have been historically underrepresented in terms of union affiliation, the result is a virtual lockout of the competitive bidding process. (Ninety-eight percent of black-owned construction companies are nonunion.)

As far back as 1998, the House of Representatives' committee on small business held a hearing on PLAs in which a number of minority and disadvantaged business groups unanimously decried PLAs as anti-free market, noncompetitive and discriminatory.

The committee chairman at the time, Rep. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) agreed, saying in his opening statement that "PLAs are so burdensome that they chase women- and minority-owned businesses off federal jobs."

In this time of recession and high unemployment, it's particularly disturbing that the vast majority of the state's qualified construction workers - a full 80 percent of them - aren't eligible to work on this project funded by their tax dollars.

To add insult to injury, this restricted competition has historically meant higher bids and artificially inflated construction costs that add on average of 10 to 20 percent to the cost of completing the project

Why would a state limit participation to a select 20 percent of the workforce when there are thousands of qualified workers in need of jobs?

And why, especially during times of such economic stress, would we use a system that narrows the pool of prospective bidders, limiting competition and driving up the price?

As all workers on such projects already have to be paid the "prevailing wage," the question here isn't whether backhoe operators and traffic-signal installers will make a decent wage, but whether a select few contractors will receive preference for the work.

We're not anti-union - some of our members are union contractors. We're not asking for special favors, but expect fairness - especially when taxpayer dollars are being spent.

We just want all of our members, union and nonunion alike, to have an equal opportunity to bid on and participate in the Graterford Prison project.

THE JOB OF elected leaders is to ensure such equity, not erect stumbling blocks that hurt the taxpayer.

All contractors should be treated equally when bidding on public projects. Where a union contractor is the lowest qualified bidder, it should be awarded the contract. The same should go for the nonunion contractor. There should be no artificial, government-imposed barrier, like a PLA, to either side.

PLAs are more than just outdated and ineffective, they are inherently discriminatory in nature. You could even call them, in regard to the Graterford project - criminal.

John Macklin is president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors and vice president of the association's northeast region.