My Letter to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors: Project Labor Agreement Policy Requires an Initial Study Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

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Union officials and representatives plan to pack the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting on September 18, 2012 to push for what they expect to be a vote to adopt the first government-mandated Project Labor Agreement policy in Sonoma County.

There is absolutely no reason for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to adopt such a policy, except that the head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local No. 551 in Santa Rosa apparently doesn’t want to see a Merit Shop electrical contractor compete for and win a contract for Sonoma County’s upcoming $42 million Charles M. Schultz – Sonoma County Airport Runway Safety Improvements Project. This is about unions using political clout and manipulating the government to cut competition at the expense of taxpayers. It is not about logic.

Sonoma County Electronic Billboard Oppose Project Labor Agreement

A portable electronic road sign parked across the street from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors offices before sunrise on September 18, 2012 opposes the proposed Project Labor Agreement policy.

An editorial in the September 17, 2012 Santa Rosa Press-Democrat (County Fails to Make Case for Favoring Unions) recommended against the policy because it doesn’t have a purpose:

So here’s the primary question we have: What problem is being resolved by adopting a policy such as this? Amid all the material being presented to supervisors, there’s no evidence of construction delays, cost overruns or unfair labor practices on county projects that might warrant such a solution.

And why now? Given that so many in the building industry are struggling to find work, the timing couldn’t be worse.

We also question why this needs to be decided at a policy level. At the least, project labor agreements should be considered on a project-by-project basis, not as a blanket policy.

There may be an argument for project labor agreements in some circumstances. But the county has not made its case to contractors or to taxpayers. As it is, it’s a solution in search of a problem and should be shelved.

Sonoma County staff didn’t bother to collect any data or do any research and analysis on how this Project Labor Agreement policy will actually work in practice and affect air quality and traffic. As I wrote in a blog post on September 14 (Proposed Union Project Labor Agreement for Sonoma County Might Just Save the Planet…), the policy insinuates that unions will provide local workers under the Project Labor Agreement, thus helping to make a more sustainable economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no proof of this whatsoever.

I sent the Board of Supervisors an email last night pointing this out. The text is below:


Sent: Monday, September 17, 2012

To: Sonoma County Board of Supervisors

Subject: Agenda Item #42: Proposed Project Labor Agreement Policy Requires an Initial Study Under CEQA

Dear Board of Supervisors:

The “Policy Regarding the Use and Promotion of Local Contractors and Local Workforce on Construction Projects” (hereafter referred to as the Project Labor Agreement policy) on the September 18, 2012 meeting agenda of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors requires an Initial Study under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) before you proceed with adopting it.

The Project Labor Agreement policy insinuates as self-evident that this policy will “help create a sustainable economy” and will be “aiding the County’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Actually, this Project Labor Agreement policy has the potential to hinder a sustainable economy and has the potential to increase greenhouse gas emissions through more commuting traffic. It changes the nature of Sonoma County public works construction projects in a way that may result in a direct or reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment.

This policy may actually discourage local hiring and increase traffic and greenhouse gas emissions as workers dispatched through the union hiring halls under the Project Labor Agreement commute to the job site from Napa County, Solano County, Contra Costa County, and San Francisco. At some point they will probably need to use Highway 101. How will this affect air quality and transportation/traffic?

The county has failed to collect and compile data concerning how this Project Labor Agreement policy will alter commuting patterns to encourage migration of union workers into Sonoma County, thus potentially resulting in significant impacts of construction traffic for both short term and long term project elements. Neither does the county provide socioeconomic data for workforce availability to back up any of the claims made about the policy’s alleged impact on the environment.

Assumptions about local hiring and Project Labor Agreements are often wrong. For example, on February 24, 2010, a committee of the San Diego City Council directed the city attorney to develop a local hiring policy that would encourage contractors to have 70 percent of employees on city construction projects as residents of San Diego County. Union officials declared that the policy that could meet this goal would be a Project Labor Agreement. But certified payroll records analyzed by city staff showed that about 90 percent of workers on city construction projects covered by prevailing wage in 2009 were already residents of San Diego County. The Project Labor Agreement policy would have encouraged a goal that would have reduced local hiring, perhaps to accommodate large union geographical jurisdictions and the status of travelers. In the end, the proposal was not enacted.

Below is a list of issues that Sonoma County properly and legally needs to consider as it studies the potential for direct or reasonably foreseeable indirect physical change in the environment as a result of the Project Labor Agreement policy as proposed at the September 18, 2012 meeting of the Board of Supervisors.

  • No information is provided concerning the number or percentage of construction trade workers on recent Sonoma County projects who are permanent residents of Sonoma County. How can the county assume that this policy has no measurable impact on the environment if it doesn’t have any statistics regarding the current environmental situation it is supposed to improve? It may actually harm the environment.
  • No information is provided concerning the number or percentage of construction trade workers on recent Sonoma County projects who are permanent residents of Sonoma County and were represented by a union during that time of employment.
  • No information is provided concerning the number or percentage of construction trade workers on recent Sonoma County projects who are permanent residents of Sonoma County and were not represented by a union during that time of employment. Based on the published membership of construction trade associations, it seems that Sonoma County is home to a substantial number of medium-sized non-union subcontractors that perform public works construction on building structures, as well as a few large and some medium-sized non-union general contractors that perform public works construction on building structures. These companies are likely to have a workforce that substantially lives in Sonoma County.
  • No information is provided concerning the total number or percentage of construction trade workers who are permanent residents of Sonoma County and who are employed by construction companies that are bound to a collective bargaining agreement with trade unions.
  • No information is provided concerning the number or percentage of construction trade workers who are permanent residents of Sonoma County and who are employed by construction companies that are not bound to a collective bargaining agreement with trade unions.
  • No information is provided concerning the number of construction workers in each specific construction trade who are permanent residents of Sonoma County and are members of a union and are also actively working or seeking work through the union hiring halls. 
  • No information is provided about the geographical jurisdictions of the construction trade unions that will be dispatching workers to construction companies performing contract work for the county under the terms and conditions of the Project Labor Agreement.
  • No information is provided about the specific procedures and policies used by the applicable construction trade unions to dispatch workers to construction companies under the Project Labor Agreement. For example, which workers get priority in dispatch? Will unions scramble their lists to favor a Sonoma County resident, as a result unfairly bypassing a Marin County resident who was rightfully at the top of the waiting list for dispatch? That seems unlikely. Note that a Project Labor Agreement can only set goals for local hiring – it can’t require local hiring.
  • No information is provided concerning whether or not a worker who is “hired through a Sonoma County-based hiring hall” is necessarily going to be a resident of Sonoma County. Union general contractors and subcontractors that perform public works building construction often have large market regions that encompass the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Even the staff report for the Project Labor Agreement policy acknowledges that “The disadvantage of limiting Core Workers is that a local contractor may be required to use workers dispatched through the hall that are not actually county residents.”
  • No information is provided about the likely bidders for the “Sonoma County Airport Runway Safety Improvements project,” which is cited as the first project targeted for a Project Labor Agreement. How many prospective bidders for this work are based in Sonoma County? In particular, which electrical contractors are likely to bid on it?
  • No information is provided about the number of workers by trade needed for the “Sonoma County Airport Runway Safety Improvements project” and the amount of working days anticipated for these workers. Is there going to be a caravan driving up from San Francisco every morning? Will the unions provide buses?
  • Will the Project Labor Agreement policy increase traffic and greenhouse gas emissions more for some trades than other trades? It is absurd to make blanket statements about the construction workforce as a whole. It appears that some trades – such as Ironworker – are dominated by union workers, while other trades such as Painter seem to be dominated by non-union workers. Note that there is one Ironworker collective bargaining agreement and one prevailing wage determination for the entire state, which suggests that workers can travel for work within a large jurisdiction. Painters who work in Sonoma County presumably are more likely to actually live in Sonoma County.
  • Membership numbers cited by unions are often deceptive and need to be thoroughly analyzed by the county. Some trade unions represent public employees as well as – or rather than – building trade workers who are dispatched to construction contractors. Also, just because someone paid union dues in the previous year doesn’t necessarily mean that person is available for work in the area. A distinction also needs to be made between active members and retirees.

In its opening brief submitted to the California Supreme Court in State Building and Construction Trades Council v. City of Vista, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California states that “construction workers today routinely commute to projects outside the cities in which they happen to live” and “it is not uncommon for today’s construction workers to commute more than 100 miles to work at a job site.” This is presumably the true nature of union construction under a Project Labor Agreement policy. Sonoma County needs to conduct an Initial Study to determine what this means for the environment.

Sincerely,

Kevin Dayton, President & CEO, Labor Issues Solutions, LLC

4 comments

  1. Bernard King says:

    Wow. I’ve seen some pretty ambitious pro-PLA power grabs, but this one takes the cake.

    If this passed, there is a very good argument that the PLA mandate on projects above $25 million goes beyond the market participant exception to NLRA preemption described by the Supreme Court in the Boston Harbor case.

    Boston Harbor held that if the government was in the role of a regulator, it was not able to require PLA use under labor law preemption principles, however, it could choose to do so as a market participant without being preempted by the National Labor Relations Act.

    On its face, there is a compelling argument that this PLA mandate is a regulatory decision, and not that of a bona fide customer negotiating construction contracts as a market participant. For one, the mandate applies to all projects over $25 million without regard to the different types of construction, and the unique circumstances of each project. Second, it applies indefinitely without any expiration date (as far as I could tell). To say that this reflects market participation is simply absurd. If it were, the decision to mandate PLA’s on every future contract over $25 million would be “participation” in markets that may not even exist now, or may exist in radically different circumstances.

    Suppose, in the future, a contractor invents and patents a superior construction method that the County desparately needs for its infrastructure. If that contractor refuses to do the work under a PLA, the County is shut out of his services. Could the present decision to adopt a PLA mandate really be considered “market participation” in the unknown (and unknowable) market conditions of the next 10 years?

    I hope this did not pass, but if it did, I doubt that it would survive NLRA preemption.

  2. Matt says:

    I think the adoption of this PLA would be a boon to the market, it goes a long way to help re-regulate the construction industry in favor of the blue collared worker.

  3. […] Opposing the Project Labor Agreement policy as proposed were representatives of several construction trade associations (the North Coast Builders Exchange, the Northern California Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, and the Western Electrical Contractors Association), the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. I also spoke as a follow up to my September 17, 2012 email to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors about the Project Labor Agreement…. […]

  4. […] “aiding the County’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” I submitted a letter to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors responding to that unsubstantiated […]