House votes to overturn Baker veto of Holyoke Home labor agreement

Hampden County

The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke

BOSTON (SHNS) – House Democrats ignored the warnings of Gov. Charlie Baker and overrode his veto Wednesday of legislation requiring a new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home to be built under a project labor agreement, a move designed to ensure that union labor will be used for the construction of the $400 million facility.

Baker urged legislators not to require a PLA on the project, arguing it would drive up the overall project cost and also discourage many businesses owned by minorities, women and veterans from bidding on contracts.

Democrats, however, rejected those arguments, and Rep. Danielle Gregoire said the Baker administration failed to provide evidence or examples of project labor agreements negatively impacting construction the way he’s described.

The House voted 130-30 to override Baker’s veto, with all 30 Republicans siding with the governor, though none spoke before the vote. The project labor agreement provision was part of a broader financing package for the Soldiers’ Home that passed unanimously in May, and was signed by Baker.

The issue now moves to the Senate, which has previously voted to insert a PLA provision into the financing bill. A Senate vote to complete the override could come as early as Thursday.

After House leaders scheduled the override vote this week, the Baker administration warned that a PLA could put as much as $260 million in federal reimbursements for the project in jeopardy. The Republican governor’s budget office said the Veterans’ Administration may choose to fund other projects in its pipeline if the labor agreement leads to cost overruns.

The administration did not have anything additional to say Wednesday after the House vote, but a spokesman for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance on Tuesday said an override would “deliver a blow to supplier diversity by effectively blocking small minority, women, and veteran-owned Massachusetts-based businesses from bidding on the contract.”

Gregoire took the lead for Democrats offering the counter argument in favor of using a PLA. The Marlborough Democrat said no one would be barred from bidding for contracts, and pointed to a 2009 executive order signed by President Barack Obama encouraging the use of PLAs on large-scale federal construction projects as proof that the Veterans Administration would not renege on financial support.

“A PLA will not put this project in jeopardy,” said Gregoire, who helped negotiate the final bill financing the Soldiers’ Home.

Gregoire also ticked through a list of projects constructed under PLAs, from Gillette Stadium and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to the Taunton courthouse. She said PLAs not only help to keep projects on time and on budget, but also prevent labor disputes by prohibiting strikes and ensuring workers are paid a fair wage.

The section vetoed by Baker would require all construction workers employed on the project to be paid a wage and afforded protections negotiated pursuant to a project labor agreement with the “appropriate labor organization.”

Baker and other critics say this type of provision discourages minority and women contractors who choose not to affiliate with a labor union from bidding on contracts.

“The House chose to ignore the fact that PLAs exclude nonunion workers and companies, including minority and female workers and nearly all construction firms owned by minorities and women. A PLA is a systemic barrier that blocks minorities and women from working on this project and building wealth from good-paying jobs,” said Jason Kauppi, president of the Merit Construction Alliance.

Kauppi said the projects Gregoire cited were finished decades ago.

“The House also ignored two points that undercut their rationale for the PLA: State law already sets wage rates on public construction and only unions strike and disrupt project sites,” he said.

The language the House insisted upon Wednesday would establish an access, inclusion and diversity committee that would meet at least monthly to monitor contractors’ progress toward meeting diversity hiring goals for minority, women and veteran workers, mandated by the PLA.

The House also adopted an order directing the Committee on Racial Equity, Civil Rights and Inclusion to investigate diversity in the construction industry and any barriers that might exist to minority-, women-, and veteran-owned contractors accessing public contracts, including PLAs.

“We want to hear about people’s lived experiences,” said Rep. Bud Williams, a Springfield Democrat and co-chair of the committee.

Williams said that while “strides” have been made it’s well-known that public contracting is not equitable. Assuming the Senate agrees, the study must be completed by Dec. 31.

“Sometimes you have to build a bigger box,” Williams said.

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