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Labor Fight Looms on Lake Champlain Bridge

Tue April 20, 2010 - Northeast Edition

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) A $578 million transportation spending bill that included $5.5 million for the Lake Champlain Bridge moved through the House on March 26 without a whisper of opposition.

But debate raged outside the chamber over a package of labor standards for workers on the $110 million project to rebuild a bridge that was demolished in December after being deemed unsafe.

At issue is a project labor agreement that would require union work rules on the job site and union benefits for workers. Union leaders said the rules would mean workers from the New York and Vermont sides of the lake would be treated the same.

Dan Brush, lobbyist of the Vermont Building Trades Council, said the project labor agreement, or PLA, would require contractors on the job to give hiring preference to local workers, define work rules and benefits.

Trades affected would include steelworkers, ironworkers, carpenters and others, he said. The bridge links Addison, Vt., with Crown Point, N.Y.

Workers for Vermont construction firms, the vast majority of them nonunion, already are slated to receive the same wages as their more heavily unionized New York counterparts. Brush said the PLA also would level the playing field on benefits and work rules, like the 40-hour week.

It’s only fair to treat the Vermont workers the same as their New York counterparts when they’re working on the same bridge, Brush said.

“Vermont workers are just as good as any other workers as far as I’m concerned, if not better,” he said.

Vermont contractors, whose firms are nearly all nonunion, said they would effectively be cut out of the work. Chris Chauvin of CCS, a crane operator firm based in Morrisville, said his firm already pays benefits to its workers, who are nonunion, and would have to pay duplicative benefits under the PLA.

“Our costs would skyrocket,” he said.

“If there is a PLA in place we will not be doing any work on this project,” Chauvin said. He added that he believes no nonunion contractor will be able to submit a winning bid for work on the bridge.

Chauvin argued that union and nonunion contractors should have an equal chance to get the work.

“It’s a federally funded project and I think it ought to be open to the free market,” he said.

Cathy Voyer, executive vice president of Associated General Contractors of Vermont, an industry group, said that New York officials had been negotiating a PLA with union leaders, but had put that process on hold after Vermont officials objected.

On March 25, a top official with the state Agency of Transportation and the chairmen of the Vermont House and Senate Transportation Committees wrote to the New York Department of Transportation to argue against a PLA.

“The unionized labor provisions in the agreement essentially preclude every Vermont-based contractor … from participating as the general contractor or subcontractor on the project without overhauling their entire work force and seeking employee approval through an obviously onerous process,” wrote Richard Tetreaut, director of program development and chief engineer at the Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Deborah Sturm Rausch, spokeswoman of the New York Department of Transportation, said no final decision had been made yet; she said it would be a joint decision by New York and Vermont transportation officials.

A decision is expected soon. Contractors’ bids on the project are due April 15.

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