Taxpayers deserve open competition, open process for public projects

March 25, 2016

by Nick Novak

This column was originally published by The Daily Reporter.

In this day and age, information is readily available for almost anything. Not sure how to make repairs to your washing machine? Watch a YouTube video walking you through the steps. Questioning a new restaurant? Check out its reviews on Google and Yelp.

People make decisions in response to what others tweet or post to Facebook every day. That is why companies are becoming more involved than ever on the Internet and social media. Even I’m guilty of complaining on Twitter about airline companies for delaying my flights. And almost every time, they have responded in just a couple of seconds with an attempt at resolving the situation.

This openness should not just apply to the corner deli or airline industry. It can be used for nearly everything. In fact, it’s what drives today’s free market. Because information is so readily available, I can probably find a better price and better service for nearly any product within a matter of minutes.

For example, let’s look at the construction industry. Decades ago, it may have been a struggle to discern a quality contractor because the information simply was not available. Because of this, union firms — somewhat successfully — argued that they were the only ones who could be trusted.

Today, that is not the case. Both merit-shop and union contractors can openly compete against each other using their records of quality and safety, in addition to price. And that is information that owners — whether private or public entities — can easily access.

That is why it is unfortunate to see many cities and school districts that have restrictive project-labor agreements, also known as PLAs, and union-only requirements when hiring a company for a construction project. By requiring some or all of the workforce to be unionized, a large majority of workers are shut out.

In fact, only 19 percent of the construction workforce in Wisconsin is unionized*, according to the independent UnionStats database. That means about 8 in 10 construction workers in the state are non-union.

Why would a local school district or city want to ban 81 percent of the workforce when looking for bids on a project? A decision like that would drastically reduce competition, translating into higher costs for taxpayers.

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