Today (March 5, 2014), in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California – Sacramento Division, Judge John A. Mendez rejected a petition from construction contractors and construction workers to suspend Senate Bill 54, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on October 13, 2013. This occurred after 90 minutes of oral arguments.
It was a victory for the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, the sponsor of Senate Bill 54. Enacted under the guise of promoting public health and safety, this law fulfills on the state level the 30-year unsuccessful effort of construction trade unions in Contra Costa County to gain control of the construction contract workforce at petrochemical refineries.
What Is Senate Bill 54?
Alleged “findings of the legislature” in the preface to SB 54 provide the justification for the law. “Unskilled and untrained workers” at petrochemical refineries are a risk to public health and safety. In addition, outside contractors are a high risk to public health and safety because “they generally will be less familiar with the operations of the facility and its emergency plans” and because “the owner or operator of the facility will have less incentive to invest in their training.”
Therefore, the state now requires refinery contractors to pay workers “at least at a rate equivalent to the prevailing journeyperson wage for the occupation, or be registered in a state-approved apprenticeship program.” And in a phased plan, contractors will eventually need to have 60% of their journeypersons be graduates of a state-approved or federally-approved apprenticeship program.
Why Is Senate Bill 54 a Problem for Some Contractors?
Senate Bill 54 attempts to graft state-mandated prevailing wage rates implemented for public works projects onto exclusively private construction projects. A contractor employing workers in trades for which the contractor is not signatory to a union Master Labor Agreement will likely have to increase wages to incorporate the various employer payments included in state determinations of the general prevailing rate of per diem wages. (For example, the employer payments for “Other” as indicated in California Labor Code Section 1773.1(a)(7-9) are not excluded from the refinery contractor wage requirement, although employer payments for travel and subsistence and holiday pay are specifically excluded.)
Industrial contractors that choose to entangle themselves with this complicated law will pass the increased costs in bids to refineries. Refineries will then pass the increased costs to consumers through higher gasoline and jet fuel prices. In turn, these higher gas prices change consumer behavior in ways some legislators regret, but other legislators appreciate.
This prevailing wage requirement in SB 54 appears to be a violation of the 1995 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Chamber of Commerce of the U.S. v. Bragdon. In that decision, the court ruled that an ordinance enacted by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors in 1990 (“Prevailing Wages for Industrial Construction”) requiring employers to pay state-mandated prevailing wage rates to their trade workers on wholly private construction projects was preempted by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
Apprenticeship Training Requirements
Two training requirements are of more immediate concern to refinery contractors and their employees who are independent of unions. One provision of SB 54 requires trainees to be enrolled in a state-approved apprenticeship program. Another requires a significant percentage of the skilled journeypersons employed by a contractor to be graduates of a state-approved or federally-approved apprenticeship program.
In the counties where most refineries are located (Contra Costa and Solano, Kern, and Los Angeles), unions have a monopoly on training through state-approved apprenticeship programs for many construction trades. To complicate matters, state law requires contractors on state or local public works projects to train workers only through state-approved apprenticeship programs, so the presence of federally-approved apprenticeship training programs in California is minimal.
Apprenticeship training is highly politicized in California, because it can be used to control who and how many people enter the construction workforce. In particular, unions use the notorious “needs test” in the California Labor Code to block approval of new programs or expansion of existing programs. Getting a new program approved generally requires years of administrative actions and litigation costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For more details about the needs test, see my March 5, 2007 article in www.FlashReport.org entitled: California Law Discourages Vocational Education, But the Feds Are Cracking Down.
Arguments of the Plaintiffs (Contractors and Workers)
Attorneys for the contractors and the employees did not hold back from asserting that SB 54 was a law carefully designed to favor union contractors and union workers on refinery projects. The State of California sets prevailing wage rates based on union Master Labor Agreements. Unions monopolize state-approved apprenticeship programs for most construction trades and aggressively exploit state law to fight any threats of competition in training. Unions outside of the traditional construction trades are excluded from the state’s prevailing wage and apprenticeship system.
They argued that Senate Bill 54 is causing imminent harm by forcing companies now to make business decisions that relate to future bids that fall under the requirements of the new law. Contractors either have to begin adjusting their workforce and their hiring and training practices to comply with SB 54 or begin a long process of challenging SB 54 as unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, employees who are not graduates of an apprenticeship program become “suspect” despite having significant experience and skills. If unions monopolize apprenticeship training for their trade, these employees may eventually need to apply to union apprenticeship programs to pursue years of classroom work and on-the-job training – even the plaintiff in this case who has 31 years of experience working in the trade.
Attorneys presented a scenario in which a contractor lacking employees who graduated from a state-approved or federally-approved program would need to lay off workers and then try to find replacement workers who met the requirement, either by requesting a union to dispatch workers or by advertising for workers in places and ways (such as a newspaper advertisement in Texas) that would encourage workers who met the requirements to apply for the jobs.
If a contractor or group of contractors decided to establish new apprenticeship programs and seek approval from the state to operate them in order to comply with SB 54, unions would immediate challenge the approval by declaring that the existing union programs could serve all training needs and therefore a new program was not justified under state law.
Arguments of the Defendants (State of California and Construction Trade Unions)
Not surprisingly, the arguments of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California were condescending and dismissive of refinery contractors that are not unionized or have Master Labor Agreements with unions outside of the building trades, such as the Steelworkers. They insinuated that construction trade unions already have skilled workers and adequate wages, while non-union contractors were resisting SB 54 because it would prevent them from bringing untrained workers from out-of-state at low wages into the refineries.
Defendants pointed out that SB 54 did not make any distinctions between union and non-union workers. They claimed that union training programs dispatch apprentices to non-union contractors. They claimed that workers who graduated from a union apprenticeship program and then subsequently resigned their union membership might be looking for jobs.
A theme from defendants was that it was quite possible for contractors to comply with SB 54, but these contractors simply chose not to do it. In addition, defendants argued that SB 54 could not be shown to affect bid awards. “Maybe the refineries don’t want to hire them under their own free will” and will make future decisions to spurn non-union contractors and award bids to union contractors without consideration of SB 54.
If refineries end up succumbing to union demands for Project Labor Agreements on all future construction contract work, “freedom of choice in the market” will surely be the claim from unions.
Comments from the Judge
Throughout oral arguments, Judge Mendez expressed concern that the plaintiffs did not have standing in the case because they had submitted nothing for the record that clearly showed injury was “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” He pointed out how plaintiffs frequently used the words “maybe” and “may.” He noted there was no evidence of a refinery bidding any work under SB 54 or any employees looking for a new job or being threatened with termination because of SB 54.
Of importance to Judge Mendez was the lack of participation in the case by refineries, which were the primary regulatory target of SB 54. “Should I be concerned?” he asked. Judge Mendez asked how harm could be proven if the refineries did not make a declaration for the record.
Finally, Judge Mendez warned that the power of a federal court to throw out a law approved by the state legislature and governor, with a stated reason for enactment, should be used sparingly. He saw possibilities – but not evidence – of harm to the contractors and employees. It’s “not impossible to come into compliance” with SB 54.
Senate Bill 54 continues to be state law. And as the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California stated in an October 14, 2013 bulletin following the signing of SB 54, “we encourage all affiliated trades to take this opportunity to unionize non-union contractors that are now working in the refineries.”
The case is Timec Company, Inc. v. Brown, Case No. 2:13-CV-02521 JAM DAD.
Plaintiffs were three companies (Timec Company, Inc., Petrochem Insulation, Inc., SSP Industrial Plant Reclamation, a Joint Venture), and two employees, Anthony Gillespie and Rodolfo Lopez.
Defendants were Director of the Department of Industrial Relations Christine Baker, Chief of the Division of Apprenticeship Standards Diane Ravnik, and Secretary for Environmental Protection Matt Rodriguez.
On February 10, 2014, the judge dismissed initial defendants Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris, and the California Environmental Protection Agency.
On February 3, 2014, the judge granted permission for the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, AFL-CIO to intervene as a defendant in the case.