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Obama signs 4th pro-union regulation; Projects must aid Big Labor

(Contact) February 7, 2009

President Obama on Friday quietly signed an executive order pushing federal construction projects to favor union workers, undoing yet another Bush administration labor rule and generating criticism of political "payback."

The order - a substantial boost to unions - says government contractors should favorably consider "project labor agreements," which carve out jobs for union workers. It overturns President Bush's 2001 order banning PLAs, which had overturned a Clinton order, which had overturned an order from President George H.W. Bush.

Unions said the agreements ensure certainty in both costs and timelines, making them worthwhile for government spending.

"PLAs help build America by ensuring that projects are completed on time and under budget, while turning jobs into careers with good pay, benefits and skills training that open doors to new opportunities for workers and contractors alike," said Terry O'Sullivan, president of Laborers' International Union of North America.

Mr. Obama's order encourages government agencies to use PLAs on projects costing at least $25 million, but unions said it also directs his administration to report back to him on whether he should go further and require PLAs for federal contracts.

Unlike each of the other 10 orders Mr. Obama has signed so far in his young administration, the president signed this one with no fanfare and out of the public eye.

"This executive order encouraging all federal agencies to adopt discriminatory, union-only project labor agreements is a shameless giveaway to Big Labor, which spent over a billion dollars to get Obama and pro-forced-unionism Democrats elected last year," said Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

Mr. Obama has made extensive use of executive orders to undo Bush administration policies, and on Thursday he promised congressional Democrats he would at some point sign another order overturning Mr. Bush's embryonic stem cell research funding policy.

"I guarantee you that we will sign an executive order for stem cells," Mr. Obama said, according to several sources who heard the president make the promise during a closed-door portion of his meeting with House Democrats in Williamsburg on Thursday night.

Mr. Obama said the timing of the executive order would be coordinated with Congress, and said it was important that Congress also pass a law codifying his order so that a future president couldn't simply reverse the policy.

Among his 11 executive orders so far, Mr. Obama has signed four that aid unions, part of a union-friendly blitz in his early days.

Some observers said he's trying to do all he can for unions now because Democrats are unlikely to be able to deliver on unions' top priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow unions to form without a secret-ballot vote by workers. Business groups say there are likely enough votes in the Senate to block the measure by filibuster.

PLA supporters said the agreements hold down costs by creating certainty, promoting quality and improving coordination - all benefits Mr. Obama cited in his order.

"It is the policy of the federal government to encourage executive agencies to consider requiring the use of project labor agreements in connection with large-scale construction projects in order to promote economy and efficiency in federal procurement," Mr. Obama said in his order.

Opponents, though, said the agreements can increase costs by as much as 20 percent because of higher union wages.

"Union-only PLAs drive up costs for American taxpayers while unfairly discriminating against 84 percent of U.S. construction workers who choose not to join a labor union," said Kirk Pickerel, president of Associated Builders and Contractors. "All taxpayers should have the opportunity to compete fairly on any project funded by the federal government."

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