PLA is the only way to guarantee local laborers are the ones swinging the hammers and laying the bricks.
Before a crowd of about 20 local contractors and union representatives, the Schuyl-kill County commissioners on Wednesday morning voted to implement a project labor agreement for a proposed prerelease center in Ryan Township.
The agreement mandates local union labor be used for construction of the center, which would be built beside State Correctional Institution/Frackville.
The board's Democratic majority, Chairwoman Mantura M. Gallagher and Commissioner Francis V. McAndrew, voted in favor of the PLA, while Republican Commissioner Frank J. Staudenmeier voted against it.
Before the vote, union representatives urged the commissioners to adopt the PLA. Several local open-shop contractors said county leaders should scrap it, labeling it discriminatory toward nonunion companies.
In the end, Gallagher and McAndrew voted "yes" because they believe a PLA is the only way to guarantee local laborers are the ones swinging the hammers and laying the bricks. Mc-Andrew said "the playing field has been tilted," with the aver-age Schuyl-kill County construction worker too often unable to find work. About 40 percent of the county's union construction workers are currently out of work, according to union leaders.
Gallagher said she "thought long and hard" about whether to support the PLA. The Democrats also cited a desire to keep illegal immigrant workers off the job site.
McAndrew, who served as county sheriff before being elected commissioner, said he recalled past construction projects and how the area "was literally invaded" by workers from other states, keeping money out of the local economy while county laborers sat at home.
A PLA, proponents argue, kills the chances of illegal immigrants working at a job site because they must be members of a union and, thus, their citizenship statuses are checked beforehand.
"I am sick and tired of illegal immigrants coming into Schuylkill County and taking our jobs," McAndrew said. "There's only one way to stop all of this. A positive vote on the PLA will go a long way to stop it."
One of the most high-profile incidents of illegal immigrants being arrested at a job site in Schuylkill County was in November 2005 at Highridge Business Park, where 120 illegal immigrants were rounded up by federal and local authorities while working a construction project.
On Wednesday, Staudenmeier said he was "disappointed" by the adoption of the PLA, arguing it will exclude open-shop contractors from bidding on the job.
"They (nonunion contractors) encouraged us to vote against the PLA. I can't justify this in my mind," he said.
Staudenmeier has been skeptical of the prerelease center project. He believes it will likely cost more than the $3 million to $3.5 million county officials hope to spend on it.
After the PLA was passed Wednesday, the commissioners also approved opening the project for bids. All bids received are set to be opened in late March.
Staudenmeier voted against that, too.
"The PLA puts a whole new spin on this project," he said.
Under the terms of the PLA, 88 percent of the workers at the prerelease site will come from the Schuylkill County Building and Construction Trade Council. The council represents about 2,500 local workers, according to President Dennis Keefer.
The remaining 12 percent of the workforce at the prerelease site could be nonunion, according to PLA specifications.
The Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce has also condemned the PLA.
"A PLA would create exclusion, not inclusion," said chamber Executive Director Robert S. Carl Jr. and President Mary Sacavage in a letter to the commissioners. "We do not see how that would serve the best interest of Schuylkill Chamber members. ... We would also express concern about this approach as it relates to assuring the most economical approach to the project."
Some have alleged a PLA is a form of political payback, with Democratic officials essentially guaranteeing jobs to union members in exchange for support at election time.
Earlier this week, Jeff Zeh, president and chief executive officer of the Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter, made such a charge. Zeh said a PLA is a "creature of the political arena" designed to empower organized labor and Democratic politicians.
When asked if he believed his fellow commissioners were playing political favorites, Staudenmeier said, "that obviously can come in to play here."
McAndrew quickly denied that allegation.
"This is not politics. This is common sense," he said.
Under the terms of the PLA, a nonunion company can still bid and be awarded the job. However, it must hire workers from the trade council.
Proponents cite Pottsville's Union Station on South Centre Street as an example of an effective PLA. While the project's prime contractor is based in New York, city officials implemented a PLA to ensure Schuylkill County union workers were given the majority of construction jobs.
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