Unions Use Power Over California Legislature to Suppress Local Government Contracting Authority and Push for Project Labor Agreements

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On April 12, the California State Assembly approved Senate Bill 829, a union-backed proposal to exert additional pressure on voters and local elected officials to abandon any policies or policy aspirations to prohibit their local governments from entering into contracts that require construction companies to sign Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) with construction trade unions.

Political party affiliation determined the 50-23 vote (with seven legislators not voting): Democrats supported it; Republicans opposed it.

Senate Bill 829 is the latest move of California unions in their quest to stop ambitious local grassroots movements to protect fair and open bidding competition on taxpayer-funded construction. Union leaders recognize there are still a few political officials and business leaders in California who haven’t surrendered or acquiesced to the political power of the California Labor Federation and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. Unions are using their firm grip on the California State Legislature to derail this movement before it spreads out of their control throughout the state.

Round One: The First State Government Attack on Behalf of Unions to Stifle Local Control

In the chaotic and emotional waning days of the 2011 legislative session, the California State Assembly Speaker – John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) – and the leader of the California State Senate – Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) – gutted and amended Senate Bill 922, a bill originally introduced by another legislator about tuberculosis screening. As the new authors of the hijacked bill, these legislative leaders turned it into a high-priority union-backed bill meant to stop the proactive efforts of voters and local elected officials to blunt union interference in the competitive bidding process.

Despite aggressive opposition from construction associations, taxpayer groups, local elected officials, and local government organizations such as the California State Association of Counties (see opposition statement here) and the League of California Cities (see opposition statement here), Senate Bill 922 whipped through the Assembly and Senate on strict party-line votes – Democrats in support; Republicans in opposition. Claiming the bill “seems fair to me – even democratic,” Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law.

Senate Bill 922 (now Public Contract Code Section 2500) prohibits California’s 58 counties from enacting charter provisions or ordinances that forbid counties from entering into contracts that require construction companies to sign Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) with unions. The bill also prohibited California’s 362 “general law” cities from enacting such ordinances, because general law cities must submit to the authority of the state government for their municipal contracting policies.

But the legislature could not use Senate Bill 922 to directly undermine the local contracting authority of California’s 120 charter cities that exercise “home rule” with their own local charters. Charters are essentially mini-constitutions that allow city governments to supersede state authority over purely municipal affairs.

Instead of using a stick, the legislature had to withhold a tasty carrot from these charter cities. To discourage them from using their constitutionally-granted local authority over municipal contracting as a basis for prohibiting Project Labor Agreements, Senate Bill 922 creates a financial disincentive by cutting off state funding for construction projects in charter cities that enact charter amendments or ordinances prohibiting contracts that mandate contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements.

And charter cities that already have these policies will NOT be exempted with a “grandfather” clause. In the three charter cities (Fresno, Chula Vista, and Oceanside) where voters or city councils had already enacted policies prohibiting city contracts that mandate Project Labor Agreements, the city councils or voters would need to repeal the policies by January 1, 2015 or lose state funding for future construction projects.

See “Brown Tries to Stop Ban on PLAs: Signs Law Supporting Union Contracts” – FOX News Channel – October 7, 2011

Senate Bill 922 Was Somewhat Effective in Stopping Policies to Guarantee Fair and Open Competition

When it become law, Senate Bill 922 had an immediate impact on local policy initiatives to ensure fair and open bid competition for government construction contracts.

The new law nullified a Fair and Open Competition charter provision approved in November 2010 by 76% of San Diego County voters – a provision that was previously established as an ordinance through a 5-0 vote of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in March 2010. It also nullified a Fair and Open Competition ordinance approved on a 5-0 vote of the Orange County Board of Supervisors in November 2009 and a Fair and Open Competition ordinance approved on a 5-0 vote of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors in July 2011.

Plans under the “20 in 2010” and “21 in 2011” strategies of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of California for more county Fair and Open Competition ordinances were abandoned. Under my direction as project manager, the executive committee for the “Fair and Open Competition – Sacramento” campaign abandoned its signature collection from Sacramento County voters on petitions to place a charter amendment on the ballot in 2012 so voters could prohibit their county government from entering into Project Labor Agreements. Senate Bill 922 had made the effort moot.

With its allies in the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction and the Western Electrical Contractors Association (WECA), ABC of California and its affiliated chapters had also been lobbying for Fair and Open Competition ordinances at a dozen additional counties with significant populations and at several other local governments. We had also been developing strategies for voters to approve Fair and Open Competition ballot measures for three specific Northern California local governments where unions controlled a majority of the elected officials.

The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California had reason to gloat about undermining these efforts. But soon it was obvious that the unions had not hurt the charter cities hard enough.

Round Two: Unions Need the California Legislature and Governor Brown to Enact Yet Another Law

In December 2011, the “Fair and Open Competition – Sacramento” campaign, under my direction as project manager, submitted nine boxes of petitions signed by voters to place a charter amendment on the ballot in 2012 so voters in the City of Sacramento could prohibit their city government from entering into contracts that mandated Project Labor Agreements. Unions and their political allies got a break when the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters subsequently determined that our signature validity rate was too poor to qualify the Fair and Open Competition charter amendment for the ballot. An ambitious plan to protect the Merit Shop philosophy went awry, and the California State Building and Construction Trades Council had reason to gloat again, this time claiming it was “nothing short of a complete disaster for the ABC” and “a completely disastrous outcome for their enemies at ABC.”

Not all was lost for the beleaguered advocates of economic freedom, even as my seven-year tenure as ABC of California’s State Government Affairs Director came to an end. Voters qualified a ballot measure (Proposition A) for the June 2012 ballot that would prohibit the City of San Diego from entering into contracts that required construction companies to sign Project Labor Agreements. It was the first initiative qualified by City of San Diego voters to appear on the city ballot since 1998.

The city councils of Escondido, El Cajon, and Costa Mesa proceeded with proposed charters that would allow voters to ensure fair and open competition for city construction contracts. Californians obviously still seek the best quality construction at the best price: an unacceptable option for union leaders, whose mission is always to obtain a union monopoly on construction.

The Democrat majority in the legislature needed to do something for the unions, and fast!

On February 23, State Senator Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield) amended Senate Bill 829 in a new attempt to eliminate any possible ambiguity concerning the financial punishment of charter cities where voters or elected officials dare to prohibit city contracts from including mandates for construction companies to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions. Perhaps not since consideration of Assembly Bill 60 (placing the eight-hour day in statute) in 1999 has the stated motivation for a bill been so brazen in its attack on specific business groups. Here’s an excerpt from the March 12, 2012 bill analysis for the Assembly Business, Professions, and Consumer Protection Committee:

Purpose of this bill. According to the author, “This bill is necessary because anti-union groups/associations continue their campaign to eliminate the option for local governments to utilize PLAs…These are mainly political attacks because PLAs are negotiated on a project-by-project or funding source (i.e., bond) basis and PLAs are not mandated under any state laws. Anti-PLA/union lobbyists, mainly the Associated Builders and Contractors, pushed bans in a few counties (Stanislaus, Orange, San Diego) and Charter Cities (Chula Vista and Oceanside) based on intense lobbying and campaigns waged by non-union contractor organizations that voluntarily choose not to bid on projects governed by a PLA.

The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California is thrilled to see this bill sailing through the legislature despite resistance again from a coalition of construction associations, taxpayer groups, local elected officials, and local government organizations similar to the one that opposed Senate Bill 922 in 2011. Nevertheless, opposition to the bill continues. Here is the written statement of Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) on the Assembly floor in opposition to Senate Bill 829:

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove Blasts Unconstitutional Attempt to Limit Local Control – April 12, 2012

Here is the video of her floor statement:

Shannon Grove Blasts SB 829 as Unconstitutional Attempt to Limit Local Control – April 12, 2012

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