When it comes to local politics, we see the same bad ideas circulated over and over. As Saint Louis native Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s like deja vu all over again.”
This month, the St. Louis City Board of Aldermen is considering legislation that would rig the construction contract bidding process in favor of union contractors. And it looks like a political move to scratch the back of an important constituency at the expense of the smaller minority contractors shut out by this type of legislation.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. In 2012, the St. Louis County Council enacted similar regulations. Just as that law was a shameful example of special-interest pandering in the county, this legislation appears to serve the same function for city politicians who rely on trade and construction unions to stay in power. According to a story in the St. Louis American, Alderman Joe Vaccaro, who introduced this bill, freely admitted that the labor unions came to him with this bill and asked him to introduce it.
Of course, the bill does not specifically say that it would limit bids and contracts to “union-only” contractors. That would be illegal. Instead, it mandates a requirement that will legally accomplish the same goal. The new ordinance requires bidders on contracts of $25,000 or more to offer apprentice-training programs that are generally found in union shops. For all practical purposes, the only way a contractor or company can offer this type of program—and be allowed to participate in city construction contract bids—is to become a union shop. It would be an extreme burden for the typical independent non-union company to participate in the apprentice program. Whatever that burden may be, the city has no business mandating it.
Minority contractors, who want nothing more than an equal playing field in which to compete, say that restricting non-union contractors from bidding on construction projects will prevent minority-owned contractors from winning contracts. The county bill ended up keeping African-American independent contractors out of county construction worksites. Government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers. And government favoritism that has a disproportionately negative impact on minority businesses and independent contractors is simply indefensible.
Moreover, if the city adopts this legislation and non-union shops no longer participate in the bid process, taxpayers will take a hit. Limiting the number of potential bidders can only have one effect: raising overall prices. Researchers at the Beacon Hill Institute found that Project-Labor Agreements (PLAs), another method of union-favored project bidding, raised costs to taxpayers by 27 percent over non-PLA projects (which included many non-union bidders). This new law for Saint Louis City likely would have a similar result.
Law should facilitate open access, such that access to public institutions is not contingent on personal relationships and political connections. Law should be structured to apply to everyone equally. By favoring unionized contractors over non-unionized contractors, this bill reeks of cronyism. This is one bad idea I hope will not come back again, but as Yogi said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
John Wright is a policy researcher at the Show-Me Institute.