Project Labor Agreement Negotiations Fail, Government Transparency Is Restored, Ferry Agency Resumes Fair and Open Bid Competition

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Fair and open bid competition on a $22 million ferry project funded by California taxpayers was preserved after unions would not agree to provisions proposed by the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority for a Project Labor Agreement. Background about the failed union negotiations was revealed when a government affairs representative for non-union construction trade associations pointed out how the agency board planned to discuss the negotiations out of public view in closed session, in violation of state law.

A short time schedule contributed to the failure of Project Labor Agreement negotiations. On May 1, 2013, the City of Vallejo, the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority, and the private developer Lennar Mare Island (LMI) issued a joint press release announcing a new $22-million maintenance, administration, and passenger facility to be built on Mare Island, a part of the City of Vallejo that was the Mare Island Naval Shipyard until 1996.

Despite its potential for prosperity based on a beautiful Bay Area water location and climate, its historic and heritage districts, and its Mare Island redevelopment, the City of Vallejo has been troubled. It filed for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in 2008, primarily because of excessive commitments to its public employee unions. The city’s political leadership is notorious for catering to the interests of labor unions. Construction trade union officials have lobbied elected officials to ensure that contractors must sign Project Labor Agreements as a condition of working on major public works construction in Vallejo, whether the projects are built by Solano County, the City of Vallejo, the Vallejo City Unified School District, or the Solano Community College District.

This new project – now known as the North Bay Maintenance and Operations Facility – was an obvious union target. At the May 23, 2013 meeting of the WETA board of directors, the agency’s executive director informed the board that Ben Espinoza, president of the Napa-Solano Building and Construction Trades Council, had contacted her about the upcoming contractor bidding for the ferry facility. Union officials wanted the WETA board to require construction companies to sign a Project Labor Agreement with the Napa-Solano Building and Construction Trades Council as a condition of working on it.

According to the May 23, 2013 WETA board meeting minutes, the executive director told the board that the unions’ “preferred language was currently under review and that she would keep the Board informed on the status of the item.” In response to a question from one board member asking how the agency would implement the Project Labor Agreement, the executive director said that the agency would meet with union officials to negotiate an agreement for the board to approve at its June 2013 meeting. If a final agreement was not ready when the agency released bidding information for the project, the agency would subsequently add it through an addendum.

Agency negotiations with the unions had to be completed quickly. The project would be funded in part by State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) funds obtained for the City of Vallejo through the Solano Transportation Authority. In order to use the STIP funds allocated to this project, the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority would have to award the contract no later than August 31, 2013.

At the June 27, 2013 meeting, despite the opposition of the Northern California Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, the WETA board unanimously voted for a resolution requiring construction companies to sign a Project Labor Agreement. The resolution authorized the agency to modify a draft Project Labor Agreement within 24 hours for inclusion in the bid specifications.

Following the meeting, the executive director of the agency added a modified draft Project Labor Agreement to the July 3, 2013 bid specifications for the project. The Request for Proposals noted that “The final PLA will be released in an addendum to this RFP upon execution by the parties, which we anticipate will occur no later than 10 days prior to the date that proposals are due. A PLA acknowledgement form is also included in this RFP as a form required for submission.”

Here is the text of the Water Emergency Transportation Authority – North Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility – Draft Project Labor Agreement as included in the July 3, 2013 bid specifications. Figuring this would be a done deal, I dutifully added it to the list of Copies of All Project Labor Agreements on California Government Projects (1993-2013) on the www.LaborIssuesSolutions.com web site. I would ultimately have to remove it.

A few weeks later, the first posted July 18, 2013 meeting agenda for the board of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (created on July 12, 2013) did not refer to any Project Labor Agreement negotiations. But a revised meeting agenda (created on July 15, 2013) included a closed session item to discuss the agency’s Project Labor Agreement negotiations with the Napa-Solano Building and Construction Trades Council.

A July 15, 2013 letter from the WETA executive director to the Napa-Solano Building and Construction Trades Council president explains the negotiating difficulties leading to this item. Here are some key excerpts:

We have a funding deadline that requires us to be in contract no later than the end of August or we lose significant funding for the North Bay Maintenance and Operations Facility project. We released an RFP for the Phase 1 work two weeks ago that includes the PLA in unexecuted format. However, we cannot go to award of a contract without having finalized the agreement and having it fully executed.

Based on your legal counsel’s representation, it would appear that I have no alternative other than to go to my board at its meeting this Thursday and advise them we will have to pull the PLA from the procurement set. If you think further discussions would be productive, given that I have a limited ability to make further changes, please get back to me immediately. We need to resolve open issues no later than the end of the day on Wednesday…

Please get back to me immediately if you see value in further discussions. Otherwise I have no option other than to advise the WETA board to delete the PLA from the North Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility project procurement.

On behalf of Western Electrical Contractors Association (WECA), Air Conditioning Trade Association (ACTA), and the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association of California (CAPHCC), Richard Markuson submitted a July 16, 2013 letter to WETA pointing out that discussion of the Project Labor Agreement negotiations in closed session was a violation of the California Ralph M. Brown Act, a law meant to insure government transparency and accountability.

The agency changed its plans. Created on July 16, the revised July 18, 2013 meeting agenda was “corrected” to place the Project Labor Agreement in open session as an “urgency item for consideration.”

At the July 18 WETA board meeting, representatives of the Northern California Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the Western Electrical Contractors Association (WECA) called for the agency to negotiate certain provisions into the Project Labor Agreement so that Merit Shop contractors would not be discouraged from bidding. But more stunning was the infighting among representatives of various trade unions, which revealed why the discussion was originally intended for closed session.

A representative of the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council spoke against the Project Labor Agreement in its current draft form. The Sheet Metal Workers Local Union No. 104 and the Teamsters union also opposed the draft language.

WETA’s executive director recommended that the board dismiss the Project Labor Agreement. After a month of negotiations, the agency could not reach an agreement with the Napa-Solano Building and Construction Trades Council. The attorney with Thompson Coburn law firm negotiating the Project Labor Agreement on behalf of WETA was resisting inclusion of off-site hauling (to and from the job site) and off-site fabrication in the Project Labor Agreement because he believed including these activities would violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Meanwhile, the law firm of Weinberg, Roger and Rosenfeld, negotiating the Project Labor Agreement on behalf of the Napa-Solano Building and Construction Trades Council, has historically upheld a strict model of a Project Labor Agreement that includes off-site work and militantly rejects any provisions that acknowledge the existence of a non-union construction sector. Speaking on behalf of the unions, Sharon Seidenstein of Weinberg, Roger and Rosenfeld even objected to WETA changing a provision to allow apprentices to be dispatched from any state-approved apprenticeship program (including programs operated by companies or non-union Unilateral Apprenticeship Committees), rather than exclusively from a program operated by a union-affiliated Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (JATC).

WETA’s legal counsel asked the union lawyer for case studies to back her position, which she was unable to do because reportedly no party has yet challenged the inclusion of off-site hauling (to and from a job site) or inclusion of off-site fabrication in a Project Labor Agreement. WETA board members tried to convince union representatives to accept the draft Project Labor Agreement and even recommended limiting apprentices on the project to those from union programs. In the end, the WETA board voted that if the unions did not sign the draft Project Labor Agreement by close of business on July 19, 2013, contractors would not be required to sign a Project Labor Agreement to work on Phase 1 of the project.

On July 19, 2013, unions informed the agency that it would not sign the Project Labor Agreement, and the agency removed the requirement from the bid specifications through an addendum. State taxpayers will now benefit from fair and open competition on this project.

News Media Coverage:

Labor Agreement Could Be in Place for New Ferry Facility on Mare IslandVallejo Times-Herald – June 27, 2013

WETA Adopts Disputed Labor Agreement for Vallejo Ferry Facility – Vallejo Times-Herald – June 28, 2013

Vallejo Ferry Hub Accord in Jeopardy – Vallejo Times-Herald – July 27, 2013

2 comments

  1. Good article, Kevin, although I still have difficulty accepting that organized labor was more instrumental in defeating this PLA than the merit shop.

  2. […] session” through my July 23, 2013 article in http://www.LaborIssuesSolutions.com entitled Project Labor Agreement Negotiations Fail, Government Transparency Is Restored, Ferry Agency Resumes…, followed by a July 27, 2013 article in the Vallejo Times-Herald, Vallejo Ferry Hub Accord in […]