WatchSonoma Watch

Sonoma County spurns blanket union plan for big public projects

Those in favor of Planned Labor Agreements, including George Steffenson, right, apprenticeship coordinator for Santa Rosa Operating Engineers Local 3, raise their hands during a meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)


A split Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rejected a disputed policy that would have required union rules, benefits and oversight for all workers on large county construction projects.

Nearly five hours into a hearing before a standing-room-only crowd, the board was opposed, 3-2, to the blanket policy and let it die. It would have backed a pre-hire collective bargaining deal, called a project labor agreement, on all county construction projects of at least $25 million.

Without support for that move, supervisors quickly pivoted Tuesday and unanimously backed a proposal to pursue a narrower deal that would apply the same sort of agreement to just one project, the planned $54 million expansion of runways at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

The compromise was a victory of sorts for the non-union contractors and trade groups that opposed the wider policy, concerned it would edge them out of competition for projects or force them to act as union employers.

Business and taxpayer groups also opposed the policy, saying it lacked details and would add additional compensation and negotiation costs to county construction projects.

“Entering into an agreement that’s not yet defined is not a good business practice,” said Sean Beehler, vice chairman of the advocacy council for the Santa Rosa Chamber Commerce.

Supervisors Valerie Brown, David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo opposed the blanket policy, saying it could disadvantage some non-union workers and overly complicate bidding on county projects.

“Convince me what I’m getting for the additional cost,” said Rabbitt. “Or convince me there is no additional cost. No one has convinced me of anything.”

The outcome was a setback for trade union members, who touted the policy as a way to promote local hiring, enhance job training and extend union benefits to non-union workers on county jobs.

It was also a political blow to Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, who had advocated strongly for the blanket policy, tying it to county economic development efforts and a broader campaign to protect the middle class.

Zane, who was backed by unions in her June re-election, said she was “disappointed” with the outcome, but she echoed union leaders who said they might still achieve their goals through a project-by-project approach, starting with the airport.

The runway expansion was the only planned county construction project that would have triggered the policy, they noted.

“We thought it would be easier to have a general policy and then come back on specific projects,” said Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, a coalition of private and public sector labor groups. Taking the opposite approach, he said, wouldn’t change anything “in the big picture.”

Supervisor Mike McGuire joined Zane in supporting the blanket policy.

The board was heavily lobbied by both sides in recent months.

At Tuesday’s hearing, supporters of organized labor donned T-shirts carrying their message and rallied outside the board chambers.

Across the street, opponents had parked a large electronic road sign that flashed their message, directed at Zane in the form of a question: “Why?”

The chairwoman took notice. “It’s not every day I get to come to work and see my name in lights outside my office window,” she said.

The board wrestled at length with how to measure the supposed benefits of a policy favoring project labor agreements against the risks.

Agreements are not uncommon for large public works projects on a case-by-case basis, but only three California counties have blanket policies.

Supporters noted it would not bar non-union contractors or eliminate the standard selection of the lowest responsible bid, while offering the county protections against labor disputes. Other upsides, they said, were the uniform benefits for workers — prevailing wages already are required on all county jobs — and enhanced training programs.

“It’s the best thing you can do to support local workers,” said John Galeotti, a representative for Operating Engineers Local 3.

But 80 percent or more of local construction workers are non-union, opponents said, and those workers, if their firms do bid for projects covered by such agreements, often run into headaches with union health care plans or pension benefits they help pay for but never receive.

“That doesn’t work very well for me,” said Chad Lowenburg, a Cotati construction worker opposed to the policy.

Supervisors said such details, including the mandated pension plan participation, need further discussion.

“There has to be an agreement on that before we move full bore on this thing,” said Brown.

Acknowledging their deep divide on some issues, representatives from both sides nevertheless said they would work on reaching consensus over the airport agreement.

“I think supervisors did the right thing tonight,” said Keith Woods, CEO of the Santa Rosa-based North Coast Builders Exchange.

“Why adopt a blanket policy on a project you don’t even know the details on?” Woods said. “We’re going to go to the table to see if we can work something out.”

The board is set to revisit the issue in about two months.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

26 Responses to “Sonoma County spurns blanket union plan for big public projects”

  1. bill me says:

    @ Engioneer–are you suggesting, that if all the public works were to be done by union folks, we do not need to inspect anymore?

    There are certainly other ways to insure good welds are being made rather than to force all the welds be done by signatory welders. Can we agree on that?

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  2. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Follower-who brought us those laws? UNIONS. Without unions, folks, those laws will go away. Just look at what’s happening across the nation in states that have Republican governors and Republican legislatures. The union busting is rampant. THEY ARE GUTTING EVERYTHING for the benefit of big corporations’ unbridled GREED. We work, we should be ADEQUATELY compensated. We should be able to have SECURE jobs with decent wages and benefits. And most of all we need a SAFE ENVIRONMENT to work in so we don’t die on the job because of cut corners and untrained fellow employees.

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  3. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Thanks Engineer. TRAINING is the key and unions INSIST that their people are trained requiring it to get work and advancement. They provide it for free.
    I think that people aren’t noticing that effective union busting since Reagan was President has lowered everyone’s wages and is part of the war the big corporations have been waging against the middleclass. Back during Reagan’s reign I was much better able to make ends meet as a married person and I wasn’t working. Even as a single parent and working I was better able to pay for childcare AND live respectfully. Now I’m single, making a good wage compared to then, and can’t make ends meet. I’m not a frivolous spender either.
    I don’t see how people can’t see this effect on their own lives. The 1% want free range to do whatever they want including damaging the environment, killing people on their jobs, taking away all our safety nets, not producing secure decent wage and benefit jobs. And they are winning the war because of greed and indifference to the grief they are causing.
    And yet, people still vote Republican. Ike would be appalled. So would Abe, Teddy, even Nixon (I hope I’m not struck dead by lightening by adding Nixon to my list of pragmatic citizen supporting Republicans).
    The current Republican party is NOT THE SAME PARTY that it once was. They are the party of big corporations and the 1%.

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  4. GAJ says:

    “According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 14 percent of the 2011 U.S. private construction workforce belongs to a union. This means PLAs discriminate against more than eight out of 10 construction workers who would otherwise work on construction projects if not for a PLA.”


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  5. Jim says:

    To even hint that union labor does better quality work than non-union is preposterous. Would the same argument be made about union teachers vs charter school teachers?

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  6. Follower says:


    The instances you site are undoubtedly true. Anytime you have “people” managing other people you are going to have situations like this.

    That’s why we have LABOR LAWS and why we spend MILLIONS on the California Department of Industrial Relations. http://www.dir.ca.gov/

    Having been dragged before the Labor Board on far too many occasions I can assure you from personal experience that these people are VERY serious about enforcing the LAWS we have protecting California workers.

    If Public Employee Unions operated under the same rules that Private Sector Unions must follow (Even Playing Field) I would have just as much support for them as I do actual Labor Unions.

    But they don’t!

    Private Sector Unions must balance their demands with the employers ability to deliver. If they demand too much, the employer closes his doors and that’s that! No more employees, no more Union, no more jobs.

    Not so with Public Employee Unions because THEIR employer will NEVER go “out of business”.

    What’s more… if a corporate CEO gives in and agrees to pay & benefits that the company can’t afford, that CEO too will soon be out of a job.

    The exact opposite is true of a Public Employee Union.

    When the “CEO” of a Governmental entity agrees to too much, he’s rewarded with Union money, Union staff for his campaign and a head start against his opponent with a guarantee of all those Union votes.
    Color it however you want but it’s nothing short of buying votes with OUR money!

    Further… the Elected Official is negotiating with full knowledge that no matter how much of OUR money he gives away, we will just pay MORE! More taxes, more fees, more, more, MORE!

    It’s never enough, is it??!!

    The occupation of Civil Servant isn’t supposed to be a life time pass on the Gravy Train. It’s supposed to be a sacrifice for the good of your community in some cases, the best you can ever hope to do in others.

    A job that is more secure than any Private Sector job but less financially rewarding in exchange for that security.

    And before you all start droning in & on about the insecurities of a Government job, remember… your employer is never going out of business! THAT in itself gives a Civil Servant far more long term job security than any of us peasants.

    I know many of you either don’t understand the difference or have vested interest in pretending there is no difference but the fact is, we are running out of other people’s money and we can’t afford to continue with this charade.

    Municipal bankruptcies are NOT the answer!

    They only re-set the clock and the whole game just starts over because nobody is doing anything to fix the problem that created the bankruptcy in the 1st place.

    Banning Public Employee Unions is no panacea.
    But it’s a good start!

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  7. Happy County Employee says:


    I can give you current, real life, local examples of the Sonoma County abusing its employees:

    1. The workers at the dump sites, the ones you pay when you dump a load at the landfill, aren’t given duty-free breaks as required by law. This has been going on for years. Don’t believe me? Ask them next time you’re there.

    2. An employee is currently on a corrective action work plan for taking too much time off work. Her reason for being off work so much? Treatment for breast cancer. Multiple surgeries to remove the cancer and reconstruct her body. I pray that you are never afflicted with a serious, life-threatening illness and then are threatened with losing your job (and your health insurance) because of it.

    3. The employees of the Public Administrator, Public Guardian, and Public Conservator’s office have been working in some very dangerous situations including exposure to biological waste (urine, feces, and the remains of dead bodies), toxins and poisons (mold-contaminated homes), and exposure to potentially violent patients at psychiatric facilities (going into small rooms alone, with no back-up). All of this while they don’t have the proper safety gear and have never been given the training to learn to protect themselves. This has also been going on for years. The county didn’t care or bother to correct the situation until the union got involved this year and demanded action. I think this situation is so egregious it should go to the grand jury for further investigation.

    These are situations I’ve heard of just in the last six months. I could give you countless stories of denial of overtime pay and duty-free breaks and coercive practices on the part of department heads & administrators that have occurred since I started working for this county five years ago. Some county departments are run like mini fiefdoms with heads who are either ignorant of labor laws or simply don’t care as long as they aren’t caught. Not all departments, but some for sure.

    This relentless campaign of blaming public employees and their unions for all the economic woes of the country is simply a distraction. The rich are still rich and they have us at each other’s throats fighting over the scraps left over from the economic disaster they orchestrated over the last five years. Put the blame where it belongs.

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  8. Terry says:

    O my gosh Engineer…I can give you just as many examples of poor workmanship and poor welding, etc. by union workers. Humans are humans and make mistakes. Now union workers have become Divine on par with Jesus. Give me a break.

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  9. ENGINEER says:

    RE: “Convince me what I’m getting for the additional cost,” said Rabbitt.”

    How about this: non union welding was producing bad welds. As an civil engineer I knew the welds were bad but had to ask a union trained welder how to correct the situation. He came to the job site and corrected the problem.

    How about this: non operating engineers union crane operator did not know how to put the gantry up let alone that it must be up before making a pick. He had been operating that crane for years !

    Mr Rabbit that happened right here in Sonoma County. The evidence of that may still be available, care to take a ride with me and see ?

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  10. bear says:

    Every job is a good job. Every employed worker spends money in the local economy. And pays taxes, which is more than you can say about the economic elite.

    I keep asking how all you make your money. Are you the elite with tax shelters or are you part of the 47%? The 47% who pay a ton of taxes regardless of the political drivel?

    Chances are, if you look into your personal past, you or ancestors have benefitted from unions. And benefitted from government programs such as SS, the GI bill, college funding, etc.

    God knows I have, and I acknowledge my debts. Do you?

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  11. Terry says:

    I guess the free market that created the greatest economy ever known to man isn’t good enough. What we need is socialism or a controlled economy where politicians decide who should build what.

    This misguided notion that PLA’s or unions will mean more local workers doing local work is absolutely absurd. OC Jones, a union shop construction firm, is an out of towner, but has done much of the largest of projects in this county (you drive on it every day)!

    Also, this notion that union free shops pay low wages and poorer benefits is equally absurd. My husband works for one of those companies and we appreciate the company and its benefits to us.

    What we need are JOBS! Jobs will mean more people leaving the union hall to actually go back to work. A PLA does not create a construction project, an approved project does that. People like Susan Gorin, who is a carpetbagger running for first district, has never met a project she likes unless it greases her political future among her narrow band of constituents.

    Union folk need to wake up and stop drinking the kool-aid being served down at the union hall reading the paper waiting for the phone to ring so that you can go back to work.

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  12. angry taxpayer says:

    Thank you Brown, Rabbit, and Carillo for representing interests beyond labor

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  13. bill me says:

    steveguy: no dissing of union folks intended by me-that is for sure-it is comments about “low wage” public works road builders that I am at odds with. Kelli said it best: Prevailing Wage is already the law! At any rate, i also think Mockingbird has it wrong as well about union = local hire. Not necessarily because sonoma county is not big enough in construction to support a lot of specialty subcontractors. therefore, when a big complex job is bid, if union only is required, the local guys will not bid because the out of town union shops will get the work. there is no way to ascertain exactly what might happen, i am just saying it is not a given that a PLA will lead to more local hiring. what is wrong with the 10 year, $194,000,000 experience we already have with 95% local hire? That came from County staff. Seems pretty good to me—

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  14. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Steveguy-my son is a member of local 38 too. They get free training and have to take mandatory classes at the union hall. More union busting going on will drop the wages for all workers, union and not union. I will take a well trained union worker over all. I asked Shirley Zane about union jobs when she was talking about the courthouse. She said she can’t guarantee. It will be put out to bid the the lowest bidder will be selected. The trouble is, that company will probably be from out of Sonoma County and won’t use local workers union or not. I would rather the BOS open the bidding to local contractors and require union workers. If the BOS are truely interested in employing local people that is and interested in increasing jobs.

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  15. Kelli says:

    What is up with this “low wage/low road construction contractors” comments? Haven’t you ever heard of Prevailing Wage Law? Non union companies are required by law to pay prevailing wage rates, that are definitely not “low wage”. Don’t believe me? Check out the DIR website for yourself: http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlsr/pwd/Northern.html

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  16. Union Guy says:

    I have explained 3 times to the follower type exactly why Public Employee Unions are needed and what they do. The head is in the sand, the rant is on the toungue, listen to nothing, keep with your mantra, go, go, go. News flash: There is NO FIGHT to end Public Employee Unions. Just one small poster in the local papers comments page. Not exactly main stream or based in reality. Next time just call me NOBODY, because I had the answers. Just because you refuse to see the real facts, doesnt mean they weren’t given, just that you didn’t like them and choose to ignore them.

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  17. Bill me says:

    Staff: In the last 10 years, $194,000,000 without labor issues, with prevailing wages having been paid, with pension and health benefits paid to good workers both signatory and non, and 95% local participation. Sounds like a non-problem to County Staff. Does Keith Woods own them too? Shirlee-put the Kool-Aid down and listen to your staff. We don’t need more B.S. regulation. It isn’t broken! Focus on important stuff-that actually represents All of your constituents.

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  18. Steveguy says:

    I have 2 sons that belong to UA Local 38 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union. They work downtown San Fran. Good jobs with talent required. Very required.

    Local 38 may be familiar to some of you oldsters. The hotel up Fountaingrove went belly-up, but they did invest in Konocti Resort. It did crash recently, but the place had a great run.

    The Union pipefitters also work on the Hospitals and chemistry lab set-ups in private business. There are certifications for running Oxygen lines in hospitals, etc, etc , ya think ? Who (whom?) do you want doing the 6 inch copper pipe ? Or the big nat gas pipe ?

    Don’t diss all union members. My kids have talent and get paid well, though with aspirations to being company management.

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  19. Bob Whittaker says:

    Keith Woods thinks Rabbit, Carrillo and Brown did the right thing because he donates a great deal of money to their campaign coffers to do what he (and his low wage construction companies) think is the right thing. If the Press Democrat would have printed how much money they donate to these candidates there would be a real story. Oh wait Keith Woods paid ten thousand dollars for an ad in the Press Democrat. And the Press Democrat did an editorial opposing PLA’s just like Keith Woods wanted. Hmm. Makes you think

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  20. Brian Enright says:

    David Rabbit and Valerie Brown will always support the Chamber and the gravel mining business (as does the Press Democrat)because that’s where they get their money. Carrillo tries to pretend like he cares about his district but he is a tool of the Chamber too. I suggest labor and environmentalists do a recall on Efren Carrillo. It might cost a lot of money but it’s better than putting up with four more years of lies and flip flopping with Efren.

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  21. Elsa Samson says:

    Over 150 working people show up begging for good middle class jobs and Carrillo, Rabbit and Brown side with the Chamber of Commerce and low wage/low road construction contractors. What a Shock! Not.

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  22. Follower says:

    I’ve been warning you “REAL” Union people about this but you’re so blinded by your “Solidarity” brainwashing that you can’t see what the “FAKE” Unions, the Public Employee Unions are doing to your cause.
    By design, the line between Private Sector Unions and Public Employee Unions is a blur.

    Public Employee Unions are NOT THE SAME as Private Sector Unions.

    Not anymore than “Immigrants” are the same as ILLEGAL Immigrants but the supporters of Public Employee Unions have managed to ride the backs of people who actually NEED Union protection (private sector workers) in order to justify the bribery scheme that has them retiring at 50 and collecting obscene pensions.

    So now all the general public knows is that “UNIONS are screwing us!”

    Not Private Sector Unions, not Public Employee Unions, just UNIONS!

    You Private Sector Union members need to join the fight to BAN Public Employee Unions and help draw a clear line between workers who actually need Union protection and those who really don’t.

    I’ll ask the question again since NOBODY seems to have an answer…
    Since WHEN has the Government EVER abused it’s employees?

    When has the Government EVER forced people to work long hours with no pay?

    Work in conditions made unsafe or intolerable just to save a buck?
    The answer is NEVER!

    Public Employee Unions were created out of a need for votes. PERIOD!
    They are polluting the social attitude toward Unions in general and THIS is proof.

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  23. Eric Newman says:

    It is a testament to the power of corporate media that the fall-out from the Wall Street debacle has been a frontal assault on the last remaining sources of support and funding for progressive politics in the U.S., the public sector unions. How did the crisis caused by systemic fraud and gaming of the newly deregulated financial markets end up with no meaningful financial regulation, no one going to jail for fraud, and the “too-big to fail” banks getting even larger and posing an even greater threat to the world financial system than before the crash?

    Instead, what we are getting is the final asault on the one source of institutional power (public sector unions)that can push back on the corporate agenda of low wages, stripping of pensions and healthcare benefits, and degradation of environmental and workplace standards.

    That is a sleight of hand so audacious that we are left shaking our heads in amazement at the most massive theft from the working class in memory. The crime is not only going unpunished, but the victims are now being charged with assault!

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  24. Bob Andronice says:

    Supervisors Rabbit,Carrillo and Brown are obviously in the pockets of the Chamber of Commerce and Soiland Asphalt Family and the North Coast Business Exchange(maybe they are paying Efren’s legal bills?) It was a humiliating display that proved our Board of Supervisors are owned by business and will defend their right to pollute our rivers and air as long as it benefits them. I am sorry to be a constituent of Mr Carrillo. As embarrassing as his public brawling and drunkenness are, his behavior last night as a tool of the wealthy Soiland family was even worse.

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  25. Kirstin says:

    It’s good to see the majority of the BOS went the sensible route and declined to mandate PLAs for every major county construction project. Flexibility should be maintained to allow for the most advantageous agreements as future projects take shape. Thanks to the three supervisors who voted this way.

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  26. Over easy says:

    Good job Brown, Rabbit, Carrilo

    Ever wonder why we need to bail out the US auto industry? Ever wonder why the California public school system is a total disaster? Ever wonder why cities and counties are broke?

    Here’s your sign…..

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