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Builders’ unions made big gains in the South Bay last year

Workers across the U.S. saw their wages and other benefits rise last year as a wave of labor union victories swept the country. American Airlines pilots won a new contract that would raise their pay by nearly half. UPS agreed to raises for thousands of workers. School district officials in Los Angeles also agreed to raise wages after strikes shut down the district for three days.

In South San Diego County, it was construction workers who saw some of the most significant gains.

Chula Vista and National City both passed laws supporting project labor agreements, which require more union workers on large, publicly-funded construction. In exchange, trade unions agree not to go on strike or disrupt work on the project.


The changes came without the dramatic strikes or tense negotiations that spurred many other victories. But union organizers say the new deals will help ensure the people building publicly-funded projects are receiving health care, retirement pay and other union benefits.

“It's just having a better job, wages and benefits,” said Ricardo Sanchez, who represents the local branch of the Western States Carpenters Union, at a National City council meeting in November. “Everybody deserves to live good and to be able to retire with dignity.”

A bridge in National City's historic area is seen in this image, May 9, 2018.
Katie Schoolov
A bridge in National City's historic area is seen in this image, May 9, 2018.

Project labor agreements are contracts between construction companies and local labor unions. Generally, companies agree to pay union wages and hire workers by union referral. In exchange, unions agree not to go on strike or disrupt work in other ways.

The new laws that South Bay cities have been negotiating will require these agreements on a large swath of projects.

National City now requires them on publicly-funded projects costing $1 million or more, with some exceptions. Chula Vista will require them on similarly expensive projects built on city-owned land, as well as affordable housing projects that receive $5 million or more in city funding, although it is still negotiating the terms of its standard, citywide agreement.


Union and non-union workers are both eligible to work on these projects.

The two South Bay cities have been negotiating these deals with the San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents most of the county’s builders’ unions.

For workers, these new requirements could bring some stability in what is often a highly turbulent line of work. California’s construction industry kills and injures more workers than almost any other sector. And blue collar workers constantly flow in and out of the business, leaving the state’s workforce swinging from peaks, like 2006, when 933,000 workers were on the job, to lows like 2010, when the industry fell to just 560,000.

“It's a physically rigorous industry and it's very demanding on a person's body,” said Carol Kim, who serves as business manager of the Trades Council and has been helping negotiate both agreements. “By the time you're in your late fifties, a lot of folks are struggling to keep up. And so having a good retirement benefit is an excellent and important component of being able to maintain a healthy workforce.”

In Chula Vista, the new ordinance faced some opposition from Mayor John McCann, who voted against the new project labor requirements. McCann said he worried they would raise the cost of affordable housing construction, a typical argument of opponents of the agreements.

Research is mixed on whether these agreements actually make building public projects more expensive. Some studies support McCann’s argument, while others have found that the agreements do not have a measurable effect.

In National City, Vice Mayor Luz Molina raised that concern during a November meeting, asking whether project labor agreements would make it more expensive for the city to build affordable homes. But City Attorney Barry Schultz pointed out that housing projects were already paid at prevailing wage, which would be similar to the union wages required under a project labor agreement.

“So in terms of labor costs, it would not have an impact on affordability,” Schultz said.

Officials in both cities argued these laws would streamline the overall construction process. Chula Vista’s ordinance describes the agreements as a bid to “limit the risk of labor disputes.” National City’s city manager said they would let the city build projects “efficiently, cooperatively, economically and without interruption.”

In National City, some officials emphasized that the city’s new agreement also includes goals for hiring local workers and support for local apprenticeship programs.

“We just want to make sure that the people that benefit the most from this are our local residents,” said Councilmember Jose Rodriguez. “This is a perfect way to do that.”

National City’s labor agreement did receive criticism from the National Black Contractors’ Association, which is headquartered in San Diego and represents Black construction workers across the county.

NBCA Founder and Executive President Abdur-Rahim Hameed pointed out the new law’s focus on union apprentices could exclude workers receiving training from the Black Contractors Apprenticeship Program. He said the city and trade unions should consider carving out positions to support their apprentices.

“I stand in solidarity with my union brothers and sisters, but I'm against the exclusionary practices,” Hameed said.

Home construction continues at the Village of Escaya development in eastern Chula Vista, July 16, 2018
Megan Wood
Home construction continues at the Village of Escaya development in eastern Chula Vista, July 16, 2018

Chula Vista and National City’s new ordinances are part of a slow, countywide realignment of attitudes toward project labor agreements.

Until recently, the agreements were banned in San Diego and Chula Vista, the county’s two largest cities. Major trade associations argued that the bans would give non-union workers an equal chance to work on taxpayer-funded projects, and voters approved them in the early 2010s.

But in recent years, voters have overturned both bans. Chula Vista was the first to repeal its law in 2020. Just over a year ago, San Diego did the same, and the city is now weighing a citywide agreement of its own.

That reversal was largely to avoid being hit by state laws that punish cities with anti-project labor agreement laws by withdrawing what could add up to millions in funding.

A number of school systems already have similar pacts with construction unions, including Chula Vista Elementary School District, Sweetwater Union High School District and Southwestern Community College District.

Imperial Beach and Coronado do not have citywide project labor agreements in place and are not currently considering them, according to city staff.

Still, organizers said these changes could be particularly significant in the South Bay, where they said workers join unions at some of the highest rates in the county.

Sanchez, the carpenters union representative who spoke at the National City Council Meeting in November, said he remembers his father often traveling long distances to find construction work and having to miss Sanchez’s graduation from Sweetwater High School. Sanchez said he hopes new project labor agreements will mean more workers get to find local work and stay closer to home.

“I think this is very important,” he said.