A hometown newspaper with a local office, local owners & lots of local news

Our View: PLAs need more debate, scrutiny

We found the debate and discussion over Project Labor Agreements within the City of Cloquet inadequate. First enacted in 2017, PLAs have been touted as a way to ensure quality union construction and also as an anti-competitive impediment to economic development. Both may be true. But it will be difficult to craft a PLA that satisfies both sides.

The city council is right to revisit the issue. In 2017, it enacted the ordinance requiring the use of PLAs on projects within Cloquet that receive more than $175,000 in city funding of any kind. It was controversial at the time for two reasons: first, it applied to private projects; and second, the speed at which the 4-3 majority on the council passed it, with the mayor adding it to the agenda the same night it was first discussed in a work session. There were many questions raised at the work session, but that small-town council meeting felt like a legislative session: political.

More recently, a lawsuit was brought against Cloquet and two other Northland cities, claiming their PLAs contain an illegal restriction; it has not been settled. The main focus of that lawsuit is a provision in the PLA that requires workers to either be union members or pay dues as if they are union members. That provision was removed after the lawsuit started, but the whole issue has not been settled yet.

We also need to discuss the “union vs. non-union” argument. There is little debate that PLAs favor labor unions. And as a town that has long supported local unions — whose members are responsible for building this community over the years — we need to be sensitive, respectful, and appreciative of the effects union labor has had in our town. Is there a way to give union workers a boost without ignoring the rights of all Americans to exercise their freedom to work, associate, and pursue the American dream?

And we can’t ignore the fact that the Cloquet PLA still requires contractors to pay benefits to the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, whether or not their employees are union members. And if they’re not, most of those contractors will end up paying double the benefits — but their employees will see only half, with the unions keeping the rest.

And then there’s the question of wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Do PLAs really increase the cost of a project? We’d like to see comparisons wherever possible.

In short, what we’re saying is we hope the council will continue its discussion and exploration of the very confusing PLA concept. A more detailed staff report, or even hiring a consultant to give a comprehensive overview, would be good. At a minimum, the report should clearly explain the difference between our amended PLA and a requirement for prevailing wage, as suggested by councilor Kerry Kolodge. It would benefit councilors and citizens to better understand the nuances of these agreements, and at meetings where there is no vote looming, even a work session or two.

In the end, we hope our small-town city council can set a good example and find a compromise that city officials can agree on and both unions and businesses can live with.