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Biden mandates union work in federal construction projects

Collective bargaining agreements are now a must for large-scale federal projects.

(CN) — President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday requiring the use of project labor agreements for federal construction projects costing more than $35 million, a move he said will boost wages and guarantee union jobs.

Project labor agreements are collective bargaining contracts between contractors and unions that set wages and terms for workers’ service before the start of a project.

This mandate will guarantee union jobs and apply to an estimated $262 billion in federal government construction contracts and 200,000 workers, but not to projects led by organizations that received federal infrastructure grants.

"The executive order I'm going to sign today is going to help ensure that we build a better America, we build it right, and we build it on time, and we build a cheaper than it would have been otherwise," Biden said Friday in a speech from the Iron Workers Local 5 union hall in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

He noted that bargaining agreements will not only boost union jobs but speed up infrastructure projects by preventing labor disputes and worker shortages.

As a result of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law passed late last year, a massive number of federal construction projects are set to roll out in the coming months and years — with Biden's order laying the groundwork for how these projects will be handled.

Supporting unions has long been a pillar of Biden's politics. The Democrat kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign with a rally at a Teamsters hall in Pittsburgh, and he has publicly supported unionization efforts at companies such as Amazon.

"I promise you you'd have a union president. And I am, because you're the best," Biden told the room of iron workers Friday. "I'll tell you who built America: the middle class. And the people who built the middle class are organized labor unions. That's not hyperbole, that's a fact," the president added.

Biden called back to his visit last week to Pittsburgh, only hours hours after the city experienced a bridge collapse.

"Across the country right now, there are countless buildings, ports, airports, power stations and other federal construction projects that need to be modernized and built for the future. We can't count on miracles," Biden said, noting that no one was killed during the early-morning collapse.

"But we can count on what America has always counted on — the American worker," the president added.

While Biden's executive order is not surprising, considering his pro-union history, the idea of requiring private labor agreements on federal projects has been a source of contention among presidents.

Critics of these bargaining requirements have argued they essentially force workers to become union members and can make projects more costly, although the most recent government analysis conducted in 2012 was inconclusive about the impact of project labor agreements have on construction costs.

President George W. Bush signed executive orders banning the government from requiring project labor agreements on federal construction projects. That prohibition was later reversed, however, under President Barack Obama, who encouraged the use of the labor contracts for large projects.

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