Raising union-only construction to new heights

For decades, former Onondaga County (NY) Executive Nicholas Pirro lobbied state lawmakers to reform the Wicks Law because it increased the cost of public construction contracts. Thursday, after the Legislature surprised lobbyists by amending the law in the final hours of the state budget process, Pirro and others said the changes will have little benefit.

The Wicks Law is never likely to be a subject that becomes the talk of neighborhood barber shops. But it does affect the cost of municipal construction projects, and that, in turn, affects how much taxes each person pays.

Unchanged since 1964, the Wicks Law required local governments in Upstate to break apart construction contracts worth more than $50,000 into smaller contracts and seek separate bids for each part — general construction, plumbing, electrical, and heating and ventilation work.

For years, critics said the law cost government money because of duplication among contractors.

In 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders struck a deal to exempt more contracts from the law, raising the threshold on Upstate contracts from $50,000 to $500,000. The Assembly approved the change, but the Senate did not.

Pirro said Thursday the $500,000 threshold for exemption from the Wicks Law needs to be 10 times higher to have any real benefit. Pirro said he couldn’t think of a significant public works project during his last term that cost less than $500,000.

Another provision of the reform upset some for another reason. Municipal contracts of any size can now be exempt from the Wicks Law if the municipality requires the contractor to sign a project labor agreement.

A project labor agreement makes a labor union the collective bargaining representative for all workers on the job.

Rebecca Meinking, president of the Empire State Chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors, which represents non-union contractors, said the provision means “the only contractors that will be able to bid for public construction will be union,” meaning higher costs for municipal contracts.

Deborah Warner, director of government relations for the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the “pro-labor requirements” will increase costs. “The point was to decrease costs,” she said.

Officials with the New York State Building & Construction Trades Council — which represents unions — declined to comment.


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