Trades praise agreement covering construction project in Forest Lake schools

(Reprinted from the Union AdvocateA $140 million bonding initiative approved by voters in ISD 831 last fall will improve the security and structural integrity of buildings throughout the Forest Lake Area Schools. And thanks to a project labor agreement (PLA), the district’s investment will uphold area wage, benefit and safety standards as well.  By a 7-0 vote, the Forest Lake school board voted Thursday to enter into a PLA covering the construction project, which will break ground later this year. 

Don Mullin, head of the St. Paul Building and Construction Trades Council, which pushed for the PLA, called the decision “an all around great thing.”

“It means everybody’s on the same page,” Mullin said. “We’re all working toward a common goal, which is making sure our schools are safe, a great place to work and a great experience for our children.”

PLAs establish terms and conditions for construction employees and contractors on a project, from wages and benefits to overtime pay, grievance procedures, drug testing, holidays and more.

By setting those terms and conditions at the outset, project owners make their labor costs more predictable, weed out irresponsible bidders and ensure labor peace for the entirety of the project. Several studies show projects built under PLAs are more likely to be completed on time, within budget and with quality construction.

“It puts the agreement up front, says here’s how we’re going to work through this project,” Mullin said. “And because we have this agreement, we’re not going to have any issues.”

PLAs are commonly used on large-scale construction projects like hospitals and pro-sports stadiums, but they aren’t always an easy sell to suburban school boards and city councils.

Located 25 miles north of St. Paul, Forest Lake is no exception. During construction of a new city hall two years ago, two Building Trades unions erected informational picket lines or banners to protest the city’s use of contractors that undermined area standards for wages and benefits.

Mullin said union members who live and work in Forest Lake have reached out to local elected officials since then, building relationships, increasing awareness of what unions do and providing critical support for the bonding measure that won voters’ approval in November, after failing the previous year.

Last week’s unanimous vote is an indication that work is paying off, Mullin said.

“It speaks volumes to the work people like (Carpenters union representative) Jeff Peterson and Kera Peterson with the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation have been doing for years in the area,” Mullin said. “It goes back to those relationships and the power of our membership saying, ‘We live in this community, and we take pride in what we do.’”

Bids for the $140 million construction project go out in March. Work will include security enhancements at each building the school district operates, repairs to several existing roofs and walls, and a complete overhaul of one district facility.