Used throughout history on massive projects like the Hoover Dam and Disney World, PLAs are one way for organized labor to make piecemeal inroads without launching a full-scale public awareness campaign. Companies who use PLAs typically expect access to a pool of skilled laborers who get the job done quickly and efficiently.
With natural gas expected to thrive here in Maine — Cumberland, Falmouth, and Yarmouth recently agreed to a proposal to expand distribution through those three towns — the precedents set by a PLA could mean good-paying jobs for the long haul. "Maine is going to be booming with gas line infrastructure over the next 10 to 15 years," says Chris Tucker, a union member and LIUNA organizer. "We're trying to give [laborers] a career. The workers are tired of working for nothing."
In his State of the State address, LePage vowed to "fast-track" natural gas expansion. But the governor's enthusiasm for the industry in general and for Summit's $300 million project in particular didn't keep him from publicly chastising the company for choosing to operate under a PLA.
"While I appreciate Summit's commitment and investment in Maine to help reduce our cost of energy, I am extremely disappointed that they have chosen to implement a PLA on this project," LePage said in a statement issued March 21. "This action not only increases the cost of the project, but more importantly, it shuts out Maine's construction workers and their families from good job opportunities."
When asked for clarification, the governor's office referred the Phoenix to Associated General Contractors of Maine, which, along with the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, represent a combined 375 construction companies, general contractors, and subcontractors — many of which could potentially bid on the pipeline project. These organizations also oppose the PLA, claiming it will drive up labor costs, restrict competition by favoring union contractors, and ensure that work is awarded to out-of-state entities. (LePage's current deputy chief of staff and legislative director is Kathleen Newman, who formerly served as president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine.)
"We are glad that Summit has chosen to do business here in Maine, but we are firm in our commitment to educate the public about the negative impact that their project labor agreement will have on Maine's construction industry," said Hope Perkins, who now serves as president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, in a statement.
Maine Natural Gas, another company installing a natural gas distribution system in and around Augusta, publicly announced that it does not use PLAs "because they don't fit in with our philosophy."
For its part, despite making the controversial choice to use a PLA in the first place, Summit has distanced itself from discussions of the labor agreement, pointing out in news reports that the larger portion of their project — the 1600 miles of plastic piping — will not be governed by a PLA. Evidently, the company is not interested in making a political statement through business policy. Michael Duguay, Summit's vice president of business development, told the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center: "We want the most qualified workers. They can be union or non-union. We're looking for what's best for Maine and Maine communities." Representatives from Summit did not respond to requests for comment from the Phoenix.