A policy that has caused considerable controversy in other communities, and which opponents say would add significantly to the cost of major public projects, is up for a vote before the township council Tuesday night.
The so-called Project Labor Agreement ordinance, or PLA, mandates that certain public contracts worth over $5 million be steered to a handful of union-connected firms, essentially disallowing small businesses or merit-based shops to bid on the biggest-ticket items in which the township would invest. Proponents of PLAs claim they also mandate apprenticeships and other job training programs be established alongside such projects, and large percentages of workers must be from the township in which the project is being built. Opponents, however, say PLAs systemically lock out small businesses and members of minority communities that tend not to be union members, for them into dues-paying memberships, and drive up construction costs by more than 30 percent since about 70 percent of the state’s non-union firms would be barred from becoming a primary contractor.
The policy would apply only to public contracts – those undertaken by the township itself – and not private ventures or developments. PLAs were, at one time, limited to projects managed by higher levels of government, however after an initial veto, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill in 2021 that extended PLA options to municipal projects worth over $5 million.
The timing of the ordinance poses one of the most significant questions to political observers. With no sign of any public projects worth more than $5 million on the horizon in Brick, some opponents have quietly wondered if the passage of the PLA ordinance is aimed at currying favor with the state’s Democratic party, which is heavily funded by unions, in the absence of ultra-popular former Mayor John Ducey at the top of the ticket. Brick’s Democratic mayoral candidate, Lisa Crate, serves as a full-time union official in the Jackson Township school district, and incumbent Councilman Vincent Minichino is a business agent with the Teamsters union, where he drew a salary of $118,022 last year, including benefits, public data showed. Minichino did not abstain from voting on the PLA agreement when it was introduced last month; Crate’s signature would be required if the ordinance is passed, much like the president signs bills passed by Congress, however the mayor does not actively cast votes at meetings.
The primary organizations that have opposed municipal-level PLAs are the Associated Builders and Contractors of New Jersey and the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, both of which claim the practice blocks many of their members, about 80 percent of which are not affiliated with labor unions, from potentially lucrative public contractors. A number of studies have also found that the existence of a PLA significantly raises the cost of undertaking a major public project. In April, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled Delaware Joint Toll Bridge Commission “violated its fiduciary and legal duties” when it required a PLA that excluded from consideration the lowest responsible bid for a bridge improvement project. The PLA caused the commission to be able to consider a single bid that was $69 million higher than the actual low bid because the bidder, George Harms Construction Company, did not have an agreement with two labor unions that had been hand-selected by officials to complete the project.
In a letter to Brick officials from Samantha DeAlmeida, CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors New Jersey, the state Department of Labor in its most recent study found that the use of PLAs on public development projects increased the cost of construction by a staggering 33 percent, and led to significant delays in the completion of projects. A copy of that report is embedded underneath this article. Further, a private study into a PLA ordinance that was enacted within the Toms River school district showed projects managed under PLAs there ran about 31 percent higher than average.
How It Would Work
Labor unions and their proponents among election officials praise PLAs for creating high-paying jobs within a specific community. Brick’s PLA ordinance as introduced, also embedded at the end of this article, calls for”certain public works contracts” to be made directly between the township and a labor organization itself or a firm which will guarantee they will utilize union labor only, with “one or more” labor organizations.
The project would then have to be publicly advertised in a newspaper, television or digital media. The advertisement must solicit workers to enter into apprenticeships, describe basic job requirements, the training regimen and approximate pay. The township would also be obligated to host a job fair, and would either have to oversee the performance of lower-level workers using either township employees or a designated oversight firm.
The PLA would, however, guarantee that many of the jobs that are produced in a major construction project flow to Brick residents through the labor organization. The ordinance would require that 20 percent of the labor hours required as a whole as part of a project are reserved for Brick residents, and 100 percent of the apprentices hired are Brick residents.
The council, in introducing the ordinance, briefly touted it as a jobs program for Brick residents, with Councilman Derrick T. Ambrosino highlighting it during his public comments. Following the meeting, a Shorebeat reporter confronted him on the studies showing a history of higher costs association with PLAs.
“I don’t like driving by a construction site in town and seeing cars and trucks with Pennsylvania license plates on them, with New York license plates on them,” said Ambrosino. “I’d like to see that the folks here in Brick, the folks we care about, are being supported and being given the opportunities they deserve from the projects going on in town.”
When asked about the historically increased cost of utilizing PLAs, Ambrosino said he disputed whether PLAs would necessarily lead to higher costs for taxpayers, and did not address the studies, referring questions to Township Business Adminisitrator Joanne Bergin, though Bergin is not an elected official who votes on such ordinances.
Township Attorney Kevin Starkey said Ocean County government, known for its politically-conservative policies, have entered into their own PLAs on certain projects and, to the best of his knowledge, have been satisfied with the results.
DeAlmeida’s letter disputed the argument that her organization’s New Jersey chapter is the largest in the nation, representing 1,300 construction businesses, many of which have their own apprenticeship projects in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship Training Program. The 400,000 private employees of those businesses that complete the program, she said, are responsible for an 85 percent reduction in construction accidents.
“While you owe it to the residents of Brick to have quality contractors work on publicly-funded construction projects, enacting a mandatory PLA ordinance is not the answer,” she wrote. “If enacted, the ordinance will hurt merit shop contractors and their employees who live in Brick, raise their families, pay taxes, invest in the community, and possibly vote for you. In addition, all Brick Township taxpayers will pay the price through increased costs that have been well-documented, and which could ultimately drive taxes up.”
The meeting during which the PLA ordinance will be considered will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday night at the Brick Township municipal complex on Chambers Bridge Road. It is subject to a public hearing and second vote at the meeting before it is formally adopted.
Read the Ordinance:
Read the Toms River Bid Comparison Study (Two Parts):
Read the New Jersey Department of Labor Report (Pre-Municipal):