Jersey City’s PLA Ordinance Found Preempted by NLRA and ERISA and Void Ab Initio

On June 15 U.S. District Court Judge Wigenton determined that Jersey City’s ordinance, in effect since 2007 and providing for tax abatements for real estate developers that sign Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) is preempted by the National Labor Relations Act and void ab initio. The Jersey City Ordinance mandated that tax abatement recipients sign PLAs that contain no-strike and no-lockout provisions and therefore Jersey City’s Ordinance “directly intrudes on §7 and §8 of the NLRA.” The Court also held that the PLA ordinance’s attempt to regulate the operation and reporting of apprenticeship programs intruded upon and therefore was preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. v. Jersey City, No. 14-5445 (D.N.J. 2017).

This order is the most recent development in the action’s two-year history, as the case has bounced from court to court. In August 2015 the Contractors association, made up of non-union or “merit shop” contractors, brought suit alleging that Jersey City’s PLA ordinance was preempted by federal law. In August 2015 the District Court dismissed the complaint finding that Jersey City acted as a market participant, and not as a market regulator, and therefore the federal preemption doctrine did not apply to the ordinance. An appeal to the Third Circuit followed and in June 2016 the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and held that Jersey City was, in fact, a market regulator in its enforcement of the PLA ordinance. The Third Circuit found that the preemption analysis should be applied to the ordinance and remanded the case back to the District Court to apply the preemption analysis. Associated Builders & Contractors Inc. v. Jersey City (3d Cir. 2016). On remand, the Contractors association moved the District Court for judgment on the pleadings. Judge Wigenton granted the motion, voided the ordinance ab initio and ruled that “enforcement of the PLA Ordinance on any tax-abated project is enjoined.”

The practical impact of this ruling is to level the playing field for non-union and unionized developers and construction contractors competing for work on tax-abated projects. The Contractors association claimed that the PLA ordinance had the effects of setting 100% of the tax-abatement project work aside for 15% of the construction workforce, and driving up construction costs, which Jersey City’s taxpayers had to bear in the form of tax abatements. Now, Jersey City cannot require developers or construction contractors to sign PLAs with the Hudson County Building and Construction Trades Council in exchange for tax abatements and the opportunity to work on tax-abated projects. The Court voided the PLA ordinance ab initio, not prospectively. This suggests that on tax-abated projects that are now under way with PLAs in place, general contractors will revisit the process for selecting subcontractors with more discretion to select non-union subcontractors to perform project work.

Also an open question is how Judge Wigenton’s decision will affect similar tax-abatement ordinances in other municipalities that impose PLA requirements. Questions relating to this important decision and the path forward for developers and contractors in Jersey City and elsewhere in the state may be directed to any partner in our firm’s Labor Law Practice Group – James McGovern III, Patrick McGovern, Douglas Solomon, and John Vreeland.