Unions Say They'll Be Watching As Out-Of-State Company Walks Away With Big Busway Contract
By DON STACOM
March 31, 2012
Stung by the award of a $130 million busway deal to a nonunion contractor from Massachusetts, the Laborers' union says it plans a tough campaign to hold the company to the letter of labor and safety laws.
One of the biggest tax-funded public works jobs in the state, the New-Britain-to-Hartford busway has been promoted as a jobs creation project. The state Department of Transportation has said the project will put as many as 4,000 people to work at tasks from grading, paving and landscaping to building bridges and erecting stations along the 9.4-mile route.
Now that a big portion of the project is going to an out-of-state contractor, the recession-bruised Laborers' union says it will work closely with Connecticut union contractors to help them land any parts of the busway project that Middlesex Corp. subcontracts out.
"We're going to be like a hawk on this," said Charles LeConche, business manager of the 8,000-member union. "We'll make him follow the rules. I don't want to call it war, but there'll definitely be a coalition of trade unions to get the word out to the public, to ensure this company is adhering to all the statutes."
With unemployment still dogging the construction trades, Connecticut unions representing carpenters, operating engineers and laborers had counted on the $569 million busway project to create a jobs bonanza.
But when the transportation department awarded the single biggest piece of work last month, familiar Connecticut names like O & G Industries and Manafort Brothers lost out. Instead, the bid went to the Littleton, Mass.-based Middlesex Corp.
The DOT reported that Middlesex had underbid five other contractors. The closest runner-up, Lane Construction of Cheshire, quoted a price more than $6 million higher.
"We are required by law to award contracts to the lowest responsible bidder," DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said in a statement. "The competition is open to everyone — in state and out of state — and we are prohibited from showing any preference to one company or another. Incidentally, more than 90 percent of our contracts go to Connecticut-based companies."
Even so, the Middlesex award stunned the busway's advocates and opponents alike.
Union workers had showed up in force at public hearings last year to cheer for it. Just a few weeks ago, the Associated General Contractors of America reported that Greater Hartford construction employment worsened in the last year, with another 1,600 workers losing their jobs in 2011.
"With the exception of government work, there's nothing on the books — there's very little out there," said John Olsen, president of the Connecticut ALF-CIO.
So news that the largest of about a dozen busway contracts had gone to an out-of-state company quickly drew derision from a mix of unions. Joining them are some Republican leaders, who quickly took Democratic Gov.Dannel P. Malloyto task.
"So much for putting Connecticut people back to work. This boondoggle gets worse by the day!" Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton tweeted.
Middlesex isn't saying how much of the job will be put to bid for subcontractors, and won't discuss where it will hire its workforce from.
"At this point I think we'd like to hold comments until we get working there," said Bob Mabardy, a company executive.
Middlesex recently came under fire from the Local 107 of the Carpenters Union in Worcester after winning a $90 million job to design and build a bridge along Route 9. Mabardy told GoLocalWorcester.com that his company would use no out-of-state workers for that job, but declined to say how many would be hired from the Worcester region.
LeConche and Olsen said auditors will check the company's certified payroll to ensure that skilled tradesmen are not being paid at rates for lower-ranking job classifications, and the unions will press state and federal agencies to police the job.
"Without enforcement you have no law," Olsen said. "We want stringent enforcement."
Laws on prevailing wages set the level of hourly pay and benefits for union and nonunion shops alike. But there's room to save money other ways, LeConche said.
"We can see that rain makeup days on Saturdays are straight time, not double time. Overtime will be after 40 hours, not after eight," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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