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Loudoun County would not benefit from implementing project labor agreements for major public works projects, according to a study presented to the board of supervisors Tuesday. The news came to the visible frustration of some board members who have supported efforts to use project-specific collective bargaining agreements for some county contracts.
The board commissioned the study on PLAs last year on a party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. PLAs had previously been banned in Virginia, but Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly voted in 2020 to allow localities to pursue the arrangement, which is defined in Virginia as “a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with one or more labor organizations that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a specific public works project.” No Virginia locality has yet to sign a PLA, although Fairfax County is expected to begin negotiations this summer for a pilot project.
For now, the board’s effort to make PLAs a part of county policy is essentially treading water. The board voted unanimously to ask staff to research the logistics of conducting a “disparity study,” which would review whether all types of businesses and business owners have fair access to public construction contracts, but supervisors agreed that issue was only tangentially related to the PLA issue.
The PLA feasibility study, written by a work group headed by Cheryl Middleton, the manager of the county’s procurement division, found that none of the most expansive public works projects in the county’s six-year plan would benefit from a PLA.
In theory, the report noted, PLAs can benefit both workers and taxpayers by negotiating pay and working conditions in advance in exchange for more streamlined project management and contract terms that prohibit strikes or other work disruptions. But citing in particular the low union-participation rate among Virginia’s workers, requiring a PLA for a county project may drive up costs, reduce competition and make it more difficult for small businesses to bid for contracts.
“The last thing we want to do is to reduce competition even more, especially from the minority community,” Middleton said, referencing the board’s stated intention to ensure that businesses owned by women, military veterans and historically marginalized ethnic groups have a fair chance at bidding for county projects. If the board decides to choose a pilot PLA project, Middleton added, “we want to have a rational basis for how that process is chosen.”
The report recommended continuing with the county’s current procurement policy “until sufficient data is gathered within Virginia or other low union-based states to determine a clear benefit to the public trust.”
Still, some supervisors expressed skepticism about the report’s conclusions. “Whatever we’ve got to do, we’re going to move forward,” Supervisor Michael Turner, D-Ashburn, said, arguing that delaying PLAs indefinitely “is not an acceptable outcome.”
Chair Phyllis Randall, D-At Large, echoed that sentiment. “At this moment, I’m frustrated that [this is] something we could have been doing a long time ago – at least put it in [motion],” she said. “We could have gotten there.” Randall also disputed the report’s conclusion that PLAs could harm some small businesses’ ability to qualify for county contracts, especially those owned by members of historically marginalized demographic groups. “I think the blanket statement that PLAs harm minority businesses is not really in context,” she said, declining to address in detail the reports analysis of the issue.
Speaking during a separate public comment period, local union representatives also spoke in favor of making PLAs a part of Loudoun’s policies. Terriea “T” Smalls, representing Local 5 Plumbers, calling PLAs a “a perfect opportunity … to sit down and figure out how to include folks who want to start businesses, are in business and provide jobs for the community.”
Supervisor Matthew Letourneau, R-Dulles, was skeptical of continuing to pursue an PLA policy and shot back at Turner’s comments in particular. “I’m troubled by what he said, because I think he just said out loud: ‘We asked for a feasibility study. We asked for a professional recommendation of staff and then we’re just going to completely ignore it anyway and do what we were going to do regardless of what staff just told us,” Letourneau said.
“What bothers me the most,” he added, “is our current situation with our [capital improvement plan], with projects that we’re having difficulty getting bids on as it is. I would think the county would be focused on expanding our pool of contractors instead of shrinking it.”
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