Federal Judge Strikes Down Michigan Ban To Project Labor Agreements

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Federal Judge Victoria A. Roberts struck down as unconstitutional a ban on project labor agreements signed into law last year by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R). The ruling was a major victory for working families in Michigan and preserves one of the most widely-used and effective tools in protecting laborers in the U.S. Roberts ruled that PLAs are explicitly legal and encouraged under a law passed by Congress, and that the state not only doesn't have the right to ban them, that it was being dishonest in its attempt to enact the ban.

In Michigan, the court recognized that by effectively prohibiting the use of PLAs on public works projects, the Act interfered with the Section 7 rights of employees to engage in concerted activity to convince public entities to use PLAs, and the rights of employees and their unions to enter into the kinds of agreements authorized by Sections 8(e) and (f) of the Act. The court went on to find that this across-the-board rule is a regulation, not proprietary conduct, which is preempted under both Garmon and Machinists preemption principles.

But Judge Roberts did not stop at simply striking down the law, she went on to question the motives of those who put it in place, suggesting that anti-union sentiment was at the root of the legislation:

In her ruling, Roberts disputed that the laws intent was to level the playing field.

“The problem with the Michigan Legislature’s attempt to impose its own definition of fairness on labor relations is that Congress already decided what the proper balance of power should be between unions and employers when it amended the (National Labor Relations Act) in 1959,” Roberts wrote. “Here, ‘fairness’ is a disguised way for the State to upset the balance of power established by Congress.”

The lawsuit was brought by the Building and Construction Trades Council and the International Union of Operating Engineers, among others. PLAs are widely used to set specific worksite rules and wages, including requirements for minority hiring, and are widely cited as effective. Snyder and his supporters claim that they increase costs for taxpayers and hurt non-union workers, claims rejected by the state's own researchers:

"Judge Roberts' ruling is a clear victory for Michigan small businesses, workers and taxpayers," John Hamilton, general vice president and business manager for the IUOE, said in a statement.

"The Legislature's ban of PLAs came as a result of heavy lobbying by some low-quality construction contractors who didn't want to be held accountable for their work... . When taxpayers are footing the bill for a construction project, they deserve the right to hold contractors accountable," Hamilton said.


Roberts said state lawmakers never proved that PLAs increased costs for taxpayers, citing the House Fiscal Agency's legislative analysis of the bill, which found the bill would have no clear fiscal impact, and characterized the research on the cost impact of PLAs as mixed.

"The fact that the Legislature was unaware of any cost savings the Act would bring strengthens the inference that it was motivated by concerns for labor policy," Roberts wrote.

The ruling is similar to one recently made about another PLA ban, this one in Idaho. The same type of bans on PLAs are being pursued in Kansas and elsewhere as part of the recent surge in conservative attacks on labor in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections.


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