By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A renewed bid by unions and their supporters to establish union rules, benefits and oversight for all workers on large county construction projects is coming back to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors next week.
The move, which narrowly failed to advance at the county board in 2012, has faced strong opposition from nonunion contractors and trade groups, which contend the policy would edge them out of competition for projects, force them to act as union employers and drive up construction costs for taxpayers.
“It’s about market share,” said Ken Kreischer, chief financial officer of Santa Rosa-based Western Water Constructors Inc. and a spokesman for a coalition of nonunion shops opposed to such deals. “They (unions) want the public works projects to be union-only.”
Unions dispute those claims and last year they resumed their push for the policy, emboldened by a new three-member majority on the Board of Supervisors secured through Susan Gorin’s 2012 election victory.
They tout the pre-hire collective bargaining deals, called project labor agreements, as a way to promote local hiring, enhance job training and extend union benefits to nonunion workers on county jobs.
“What we’re trying to do is encourage a local workforce and support the local economy,” said Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, a large coalition of private and public sector labor groups.
The issue has prompted heated debate among supporters and critics, including a standing-room-only crowd at a nearly five-hour hearing of the Board of Supervisors in September 2012.
Tuesday’s hearing, set for 10 a.m., promises to be equally well-attended, with both camps planning to turn out their ranks.
This time around, however, the altered political landscape has shifted the starting point of the discussion. The central question now is how strongly union interests may carry the day.
Nonunion contractors concede they are just trying to limit their losses, endorsing parts of a new proposal coming from the county but remaining opposed to project labor deals outright.
The proposal the board will consider comes from an ad-hoc committee led by David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo, the two current county supervisors who opposed the policy put forward in 2012. They were joined by then-Supervisor Valerie Brown.
The new draft policy would trigger labor agreements on all federally funded county projects over $25 million and on locally or state-funded projects of $10 million.
It would also cap the number of existing employees a nonunion contractor could bring to a job, requiring the remainder to come through local union hiring halls.
Gorin and fellow supervisors Mike McGuire and Shirlee Zane are likely to push for changes that would make the policy even broader, in concert with revisions being sought by union officials.
Gorin endorsed project labor agreements in her campaign and received union support, while Zane and McGuire — both of whom enjoy and court union backing — formed the board minority that supported the unsuccessful blanket policy two years ago.
Union officials volunteered this week that they are pushing board members for a $10 million threshold for all future projects.
Currently, the county has three proposed projects that would qualify, regardless of a lower threshold: a $68 million detention and probation facility, a new $50 million airport terminal and phased administrative center upgrades, each with a potential value greater than $25 million.
Union leaders have also taken aim at a provision of the current proposal that would, for qualifying projects, establish an alternative bid process without the union rules to compete against a parallel process with bid conforming to union rules.
The provision offers a key test of taxpayer value, Rabbitt said, illuminating what extra costs, if any, come under union-rules bids and what they pay for.
Some of those add-ons can be very valuable, including the training programs, he added.
But he admitted he is still skeptical.
“I believe (project labor agreements) add costs,” said Rabbitt, an architect. “If it is more, tell me what it is I’m getting.”
Both Gorin and Zane indicated in interviews that they could oppose the alternative bid idea.
Gorin said the twin tracks could make for a “very convoluted process.”
Zane said it would undermine the value of project labor deals. They can hold down costs by preventing overruns, she said, but by accounting for some of those contingencies at the outset can appear more expensive.
“Why even have a project labor agreement policy if you’re going to have a alternate-bid approach?” Zane asked. “If it’s being practiced elsewhere, then I haven’t seen it.”
Project labor deals have been around since the 1930s and are common in California both in the public and private sectors. As few as three counties in the state, however, have policies requiring such deals on their construction projects.
In Solano County, the triggering threshold is $10 million. In Contra Costa County, it is $1 million.
In Sonoma County, union and nonunion interests in the construction industry have battled over the issue for decades.
Supporters say they are needed to bolster programs for local apprentices in the trades. Most registered local apprentices are enrolled in union programs.
Funding for those efforts comes from union dues, which would be paid by all workers on jobs subject to project labor agreements, regardless of whether the worker is in a union or not.
Critics say that takes money out of workers’ wallets without their permission, adding to a list of concerns that can turn nonunion builders away from bidding on such jobs.
“Our workers have already made the decision to work for a nonunion employer,” said Kreischer, the Western Water Constructors official. More than 80 percent of local contractors are not affiliated with unions, those contractors say.
“The PLA forces them to effectively pay into the union system,” Kreischer said.
Supporters counter that the labor deals benefit all workers, ensuring the arguably better benefits of unionized employees can be earned by unaffiliated workers.
Salaries generally aren’t an issue because all construction workers on county projects receive prevailing wages.
“We believe very passionately in workers’ rights. This isn’t just for unions,” said Buckhorn, the labor council president.
The renewed debate isn’t without some compromise. Both sides reached consensus on a way to avoid double payment of benefits, a problem that vexed supervisors in 2012.
They also backed the involvement of apprentice programs in county building plans covered by project labor agreements.
But entrenched positions still divide the two camps, a rift that has extended to Board of Supervisors and should still be evident Tuesday.
“There’s no problem you’re fixing,” said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group opposed to such labor deals and active with its allies in local government races. “We don’t think there ought to be anything.”
Buckhorn, the union leader, argued the opposite in an interview, calling the move “good public policy.”
“We support candidates who share that vision,” he said. “Yes, it’s part of the political process. We’re active in it.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)