Bill Finch (opinion): Putting local people to work makes sense

When you drive by a construction site and see license plates from a bunch of other states, doesn’t that make you wonder — why aren’t local workers building local buildings?

Don’t you wish that you could wave a magic wand and keep all the money spent on these projects recirculating in our local economies? Well, there is a magic wand — it’s called a Project Labor Agreement, or PLA. A PLA puts all the community benefits into a written agreement ensuring projects are built on time and on budget. John DeStefano (D), former mayor of New Haven, Mark Boughton (R) former mayor of Danbury, and John Harkins (R) former mayor of Stratford, among others all used PLAs successfully. Those cities and many others continue to use PLAs today.

I was most fortunate to be the mayor of our state’s largest city for eight years, and boy did I learn a lot! During those eight years my administration directed the investment of over a billion dollars, and many of those dollars were spent on PLA projects like schools, parks, economic development and housing.  With each successful PLA project, I became more convinced of just how brilliant an idea a PLA is. PLAs brought the most highly skilled, local workers who spent their earnings in the community. Bridgeport had thousands of homes in foreclosure and our economy was tumbling. PLAs gave us a big financial boost. Without a PLA, workers would come from who knows were and spend their money anywhere but here.

I came to understand that without a PLA, I’d be playing roulette with taxpayer money. PLAs protect the taxpayers giving them exactly what they pay for. PLAs ensure that the contractor’s payrolls are audited, and project finances are transparent and corruption free.

Furthermore, I realized that the workers were earning a career, not just a job. PLAs ensure workers receive not just a fair wage but benefits, too. Their families would never have to set up a “Go Fund Me” page to pay for medical bills. Retirees wouldn’t lose their home because they didn’t have retirement income. PLAs helped strengthen my community in many seen and unseen ways.PLA careers include free continuing education, apprenticeships, outreach to veterans and the disadvantaged, excellent safety record, and civic involvement. PLAs gave us stability and success.

A few years before I was mayor, there was an attempt to do a major school renovation project without a PLA. The gamble proved costly when lesser skilled electricians mishandled lighting fixtures and released poisonous PCBs into the school. The school opening was delayed, cleanup costs mounted, and two classrooms remained unusable for a long time. This showed me that PLAs are always the safer way, safer for the budget, safer for the workers, and in this case, safer students and teachers.

On May 6, 2010, the value of a PLA hit me like a ton of new school bricks. At the Discovery Science Magnet, we held a picnic and a “Topping Ceremony” — a celebration to install the last piece of steel at our greenest school yet. That day I met all the workers still gives me a thrill. As we lined up to fill our plate with picnic food, each worker shook my hand, and told me what street they lived on. Most of the workers were women or minority and most lived in or near Bridgeport. These workers were building a school they wanted their children to go to. What could be a better guarantee for a great school?

Despite claims in a recent opinion piece, every PLA project was built on time, on budget, safely, exactly according to plans. Those complaining clearly don’t understand how PLAs benefit taxpayers and workers.

I wish the critics could have been with me that day at the Discovery School. Or, if only they could have been mayor of Bridgeport, New Haven, Stratford or Danbury or one of the thousands of citizens who benefited, then they would know the true value of a PLA.

Bill Finch is former mayor of Bridgeport and director of the Connecticut Labor-Management Cooperation Committee.