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Tax Money For Unions

Editor’s Note: Recently, Gov. Pat Quinn and Illinois Democrats have been pushing legislation to codify into law Gov. Quinn’s executive order for all state construction projects to require union contractors. This is John Stossel’s take on “Project Labor Agreements” or the forced unionization of private companies.

November 13, 2009 12:01 PM EST by John Stossel

When President Obama took office, he signed an executive order “encouraging” government agencies to use “project labor agreements,” PLAs meant that only companies willing to unionize can get contracts.

This week, the Labor Department canceled the first PLA. The Washington times reports:
The Department of Labor, citing a “need to evaluate the issues” surrounding the union-friendly bidding process, pulled the plug on the competition for a $35 million contract to build a 160,000-square-foot Job Corps Center in Manchester, N.H., after contractors formally challenged the union mandate.

A Labor Department spokesman didn’t return our calls or an e-mail for comment. We called Ken Holmes, the contractor who filed the protest against the rule, and he said that Labor Department either had to cancel their bidding or respond to this complaint this week. Although Holmes technically won, he says he isn’t celebrating yet. He said that the administration is currently drafting an official policy on union-only (PLA) contracts, and that it may simply be waiting until that is in place to restart union-only bidding.

“It’s a victory in that they canceled this bid, but we’ll feel a lot better when they open the contract to all bidders,” he said.
Holmes says his company protested the union-only rule because the policy “takes taxpayer money and earmarks it to a special interest group… to me, this seems like political payback.”

To me too. It costs taxpayers about 18 percent more when only unions are allowed to bid on federal contracts. One reason union construction costs more is the wasteful, motivation-killing union work rules.

In Buffalo, New York, private contractors point to rules that require crane operators to be accompanied by a “crane oiler” – even though that job is obsolete.

A couple years ago in Philadelphia, Comcast wanted to build the tallest “green” building in the US. That meant installing water-efficient pipes . But Philly Magazine reports:
“Not so fast, the city’s plumbers union said. Less water means fewer pipes. Fewer pipes mean less work. And so the union blocked the job, threatening the completion of the building, and in turn delaying all the business that would happen inside it… the city twaddled in the face of a clear decision: “We’re still looking into this,” the top building code official told the Inquirer at the time. “I want to make sure they’re safe.”

Thankfully, the unions ended up losing that fight.

Collective bargaining is a fine thing. In theory, unions should be good for workers. But that hasn’t been what I’ve seen during my career. I first learned about the downside of unions years ago, when I joined my first “union shop” at WCBS in New York. As I wrote in Give Me A Break , unionized camera crews always found excuses not to work: We’d arrive like a lumbering army. It was remarkable how much time a cameraman, a soundman, and an electrician could take just getting out of the car. Every move was deliberate.

They had no reason to hurry because no one ever got fired. There was no reason to work harder because union rules demanded everyone be paid the same. May union workers were masters not just at killing time but at killing innovation. “Can’t be done.” “Against the rules.” “Equipment won’t do that.” It stunned me that so many of them could be so indifferent to what I thought was important work. They cared about overtime. And lunch. They had endless discussions over where to eat.

Union imposed costs were ridiculous. I was the consumer reporter. Sometimes I’d want to have a prop on the set, maybe a bottle of alka-seltzer. I couldn’t just bring it. “You’re taking away my job!” said the prop man. It turned out that a union “set-decorator” had to buy the Alka-Seltzer, hand it to a “prop-man” who handed it to a “stage-hand” who gave it to me. On a holiday, when they were paid time-and-a-half, and just buying the pills required that they be paid for a full day’s work, the bottle could cost a thousand dollars. WCBS eventually told me: “don’t use props.”

Union protection didn’t seem to make the workers happy. They were the grouchiest people at the TV station. I think that’s what happens when union rules mean you can’t earn money if your work is excellent, and your lazy co-worker can’t be fired. It creates a culture where everyone does what they’ve always done. Innovation stops. Excitement dies.

I’ve haven’t found that to be true at non-union Fox.


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