Can You Dig It Blog

For a story so big it cannot be contained!

- Last modified: May 22, 2013 at 8:28 AM

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If you read the print edition of Lehigh Valley Business, you may have seen a May 27 story about the new fire station in Allentown.

The story started out as a tiny seed that sprouted into many different parts. So for a story so big that it cannot be contained in print, we’re extending its life online. As part of the bid process for building the new East Side Fire Station, the city included a “project labor stabilization agreement” or PLSA both times that it went out to bid.

A PLSA is when the government awards contracts for public construction projects exclusively to unionized firms, according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Springfield, Va.

This agreement requires all contractors, whether they are unionized or not, to subject themselves and their employees to unionization in order to work on a government-funded construction project by including a union collective bargaining agreement in a public construction project’s bid specifications. In order to receive a contract, a contractor must sign the agreement and subject its employees to union control.

In my opinion, this process clearly favors unions and – in effect – shuts the door on nonunion contractors. Sure, anyone can bid on the project, but in order to do the work, you need to be part of a union.

Coercion does not belong in construction or any other industry. If someone wants to join a union, he or she should be free to do so – not forced into it.

Perhaps someone can enlighten me on how to tell the difference in quality of work between union and nonunion labor, because I would find this hard to determine.

Regardless, you limit the amount of people who can actually bid on the project.

Only about 20 percent of the construction companies in the area are union-only companies “so you get a smaller pool of potential bidders,” said Mary Tebeau, president and CEO of the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors.

“We have open-shop members that were interested in bidding, but they announced it was a union-only project,” Tebeau said about the Allentown fire station project.

“Only union companies could bid on it, it was way over budget and they ‘dumbed down’ the project and changed the design of the project,” she said. “… I’m sure this [new] design would be functional, but it’s a shame they had to change the design to get it to fit into the union-only [project.]”

Sean Boyle, president of Boyle Construction Inc., said he worked with the fire chief and the fire department to trim some items that may not have been necessary, seeking alternatives to get the same durability and usefulness in materials. Work has begun on the fire station and it should be ready by the end of the year – accommodating up to eight firefighters and two paramedics.

When the city first put the East Side Fire Station for bids, it didn’t get a good response, said Boyle.

“That’s when we stepped in,” said Boyle, whose firm is providing construction management services for the 7,532 square-foot-facility. “We prioritized it, pulled it apart and then put it back together again.”

(What are your thoughts on mandating union labor for public construction projects? You can vote in our weekly poll at www.lvb.com.)

Changes in order

At any rate, when the project went $1 million over budget, changes were in order.

W2A Design Group of Allentown designed the new building and made several changes, in addition to reducing the size, said Christine DeOliveira Carl, vice president/associate principal/project architect.

The architects removed the elevator from the plan. Because the second floor is for employees only, accessibility regulations do not require an elevator in the building, said DeOliveira Carl.

All of the spaces on the second floor were reduced in size. While the exterior featured all masonry and brick, it still has a masonry base around the entire building. But above the base, it will have a new material called an exterior insulating and finishing system, or EIFS, DeOliveira Carl said.

“Previously, the building did have a sloped roof, now the facility just has a flat roof,” she said.

Instead of four-fold doors, the facility will have overhead doors. Also, a couple of the exterior windows were eliminated.

No changes were made to the size of the apparatus bay, she said.

“Overall, we had the bid package turned around in a couple of months,” DeOliveira Carl said.

Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh.

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