Westmoreland County sued over requirement that union workers complete major projects
Westmoreland County’s agreement with a Pittsburgh trades council has been challenged in federal court, claiming the deal excludes nonunion businesses from securing county construction contracts.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, seeks to invalidate the county’s project labor agreement approved in 2016 by Commissioners Gina Cerilli and Ted Kopas, both Democrats.
“The intent of the county’s project labor agreement is plain: to prevent the more than 70% of Pennsylvania’s construction workforce who don’t belong to a union from competing to build and work on projects funded by taxpayer dollars, and to drive more dues revenue to one particular group of unions that are politically allied with Democratic county commissioners,” said Pete Gum, president of ABC of Western Pennsylvania. “It’s anti-competitive, it’s unfair and it’s unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision that prohibits mandatory union dues.”
Gum’s organization represents non-union shops in 18 Southwestern Pennsylvania counties and is listed as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that also includes several contractors and employees that claim they lost out on jobs because of the agreement.
The lawsuit claims the agreement requires construction contracts of more than $150,000 go to union companies where members belong to the Pittsburgh Regional Building and Construction Trades Council.
Commissioners have previously defended the agreement as a means to ensure quality work and avoid potential labor strikes that could delay projects.
Both Cerilli and Kopas on Tuesday declined to comment on the lawsuit.
In addition to the contractor’s advocacy group, three local businesses — Alex Paris Contracting of Washington County, Westmoreland Electric Services of Tarrs and Lawrence Plumbing of Vandergrift — joined the lawsuit along with a handful of union and nonunion workers.
“These are ABC members that bid on projects but were rejected or those who chose not to bid,” said attorney Wally Zimolong of Philadelphia.
One of the companies that filed the lawsuit is a union shop whose members belong to the United Steelworkers of America, Zimolong said.
“The county’s project labor agreement does not prescribe common standards for all bidders, and all contractors bidding on the county’s public works projects are not on an equal footing. The county’s project labor agreement violates the integrity of the competitive-bidding process,” according to the lawsuit.
The county’s project labor agreement has been a partisan issue. It was originally authorized about a decade ago by a Democrat-controlled board of commissioners. A Republican majority in 2012 terminated the agreement, but it was reinstated four years later when Cerilli and Kopas recaptured a Democratic majority.
Republican Charles Anderson voted against the original project labor agreement and again when it was reinstated in 2016. Anderson was part of the GOP majority that canceled the deal.
Cerilli and Kopas are seeking reelection in November. Anderson is retiring at year’s end.
Meanwhile, the county’s project labor agreement is the subject of another legal action. Attorneys for Tresco Paving this summer appealed the county’s rejection of its bid to resurface roads. Tresco, a nonunion shop based in Plum, Allegheny County, contends it was improperly prevented from bidding on county work because of the project labor agreement. That appeal is pending in the state’s Commonwealth Court.
Commonwealth Court judges this year invalidated a project labor agreement between labor unions and PennDOT.
Zimolong said that decision as well as a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year makes constitutional challenges of project labor agreements ripe for litigation.
“The timing was right,” he said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .