Proposition A Is Part Of A Bigger Anti-Union Strategy
Friday, October 22, 2010
San Diego County is ground zero for a battle over who gets lucrative public works construction contracts. With private construction ground to a halt, non union contractors are fighting at the ballot box for a bigger share of local government construction. Proposition A is part of a state-wide anti-labor initiative.
San Diego County is ground zero for a battle over who gets lucrative public works construction contracts. With private construction ground to a halt, non-union contractors are fighting at the ballot box for a bigger share of local government construction. Proposition A is part of a state-wide anti-labor initiative.
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On the shores of Lake Hodges, heavy equipment works on underground tunnels and pumping stations.
Tom Lemmon of San Diego’s Building and Construction Trades Council says construction on the region’s emergency water storage has been going on for a decade and is nearly complete. He says there’s a good reason why San Diego County’s Water Authority decided to sign a project labor agreement (PLA), with union contractors before construction even began. A PLA guarantees things like benefits and working hours in return for smooth labor relations during construction.
“This was a project that needed the things that a PLA provides,” Lemmon explained, as he sat on a barrier overlooking Lake Hodges. “It needed the quality, qualified workforce. They needed a guarantee that there would be no problems with labor and work stoppages. Once they started pouring concrete on the dam, you can’t stop pouring concrete, and they needed that assurance.”
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Lemmon is angered by Proposition A, a measure on the November ballot that would ban PLAs on any county public works projects in the future.
San Diego County Supervisors were never required to use PLAs, but nevertheless, they voted to ban them earlier this year. However, Supervisor Bill Horn pointed out that a different group of supervisors might overturn that vote in the future. So he pushed to put it on the ballot.
“I think the voters should have a right to decide whether or not they want to put that permanently in place," he told his colleague this summer, “To change this would require it to go back to the voters.”
In other words, if voters approve Proposition A, it will be difficult to undo.
Tom Lemmon says PLAs serve a valuable purpose by guaranteeing jobs are done on budget and on time, and that workers have gone through the necessary apprenticeship programs. He says the non-union contractors behind Proposition A are out to increase their own profits.
“Building trades, in conjunction with their contractors, graduate 92 percent of all the apprentices in the State of California.” Lemmon said. “We’re doing the bulk of the training and they’re not, and they’re putting the money straight in their pockets. And that’s what this is all about, is dollars and cents.”
But Scott Crosby, resident of the San Diego Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, a national non-union contractors’ association, says PLAs make public construction projects more expensive.
“Taxpayer funded construction projects should be no different than shopping for a new car.” Crosby said. “You want the best quality at the best price, and you don’t get that when you automatically from the very get-go shut out a certain part of the competition.”
Crosby says the Associated Builders and Contractors is now training several hundred workers in construction trades. He says PLAs force non-union contractors like his members to pay into union pension and benefit funds.
“If you’re a non-union company and you win a bid under a PLA, you can use your workers, but you have to sign them up through a union hiring hall and start paying benefits into their pension funds.”
Crosby says San Diego is the first region in the nation where voters have banned PLAs at the ballot box. In June, Chula Vista and Oceanside outlawed the labor agreements in a separate measure.
Eric Christen is director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, which is lobbying for Proposition A. He confirms the measure is the next step in a nationwide push to reduce labor’s share of public sector construction jobs.
“Yes,” he said, “this is absolutely part of a strategy to go throughout the state and the country, and it’s going to increase all over the state as we push these initiatives to take our projects back.”
Lorena Gonzalez, secretary treasurer of San Diego’s Labor Council, says project labor agreements have only ever been used on large, complex public projects, like Petco Park for example. She says banning them will undermine hard fought protections for workers.
“I think it benefits all of us when there are rules in place,” Gonzalez argues. "When everyone understands those rules. When workers are protected, where we require local hires, when we incentivize providing health care to workers, all of us are made better. The contractors are going to continue to fight that because it means less profits for them and that’s all they care about.”
Ironically, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors has never opted to use a project labor agreement on a county construction project. Handing the decision over to voters is a way to tie the hands of future boards of supervisors, whatever changing realities they may face.