Tag Archive for Contra Costa County Building and Construction Trades Council

The Troubled History of Government-Mandated Project Labor Agreements on Construction Contracts for Contra Costa County, California

For 20 years, Contra Costa County, California (in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area) has been a hotbed of union lobbying efforts to convince local governments to require construction contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions as a condition of work. It was one of the first places in the country where unions deliberately used government-mandated Project Labor Agreements to organize construction workers and expand the market share of unionized construction companies.

In the 1990s, Contra Costa County was the only place in California where local governments required contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements for routine building projects, thus expanding Project Labor Agreements beyond their traditional use on large, complex, multi-year infrastructure projects.

Project Labor Agreements imposed by the Pinole City Council and the Board of Directors of the Contra Costa Water District were targets of litigation in the mid-1990s as supporters and opponents of government-mandated Project Labor Agreements began testing their legal theories in the state court system. Two of the three plaintiffs in a 2001 lawsuit challenging a presidential executive order restricting Project Labor Agreements were the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council and the City of Richmond (located in Contra Costa County).

The Troubled History of Government-Mandated Project Labor Agreements on Construction Contracts for Contra Costa County, CaliforniaAt the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, government-mandated Project Labor Agreements have been chronically associated with controversy. The Troubled History of Government-Mandated Project Labor Agreements for Contra Costa County, California provides the history of Project Labor Agreements for county construction.

The California Construction Compliance Group released the paper several days before the Internal Operations Committee of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors was scheduled to discuss amending the county’s mandatory project labor agreement policy at its December 10, 2012 meeting. Outside parties apparently recognized the effectiveness and accuracy of the paper, as top construction union officials demanded and achieved removal of the item from the meeting agenda.

Project Labor Agreements at California Cities for Individual Projects

Note: go to California Cities with Project Labor Agreements Covering Multiple Projects to see the multi-project Project Labor Agreements for the cities of Berkeley, Carson, Compton, Los Angeles, and San Fernando.

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY

City of Brentwood

City of Brentwood Civic Center Project Labor Agreement 2009

City of Brentwood Civic Center Project Labor Agreement Parking Garage Addendum 2010

City of Concord

City of Concord Police Facilities Project Labor Agreement 1995 (Resolution)

City of Concord Parking Structure Project Labor Agreement 1999 (Minutes indicate an informal suggestion to staff; not an agenda item for consideration)

City of Richmond

City of Richmond (California) Project Labor Agreement Resolution 2001

City of Richmond (California) Civic Center Project Labor Agreement 2007

LOS ANGELES COUNTY

City of Long Beach

City of Long Beach Airport Terminal Improvements Phase 1 Project Labor Agreement 2010

City of Los Angeles

The City of Los Angeles and its Board of Public Works imposed Project Labor Agreements on at least a dozen individual projects and a program to improve Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control (ATSAC) systems before the city council adopted its multi-project Project Labor Agreement in December 2010. See City of Los Angeles List of Individual Project Labor Agreements November 2009. Here are a few examples from the mid-2000s:

City of Los Angeles Metro Detention Center Project Labor Agreement 2006

City of Los Angeles Police Headquarters Project Labor Agreement 2006

City of Los Angeles Harbor Area Police Station & Jail Facility Project Labor Agreement 2006

City of Los Angeles Fire Station 64 Project Labor Agreement 2006

City of Los Angeles Avenue 45 & Arroyo Drive Relief Sewer Project Labor Agreement 2007

City of Los Angeles Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control (ATSAC) Project Labor Agreement 2008

SACRAMENTO COUNTY

City of Sacramento

City of Sacramento Sump 2 Improvement Project Labor Agreement 1998

SAN MATEO COUNTY

City of San Mateo

City of San Mateo New Main Library Project Labor Agreement 2003

City of San Mateo New Police Station Project Labor Agreement 2005

SANTA CLARA COUNTY

City of Milpitas

City of Milpitas New Library Project Labor Agreement 2006

City of Milpitas Senior Center Project Labor Agreement 2008

City of San José

City of San Jose Civic Center Project Labor Agreement 2002

City of San Jose International Airport Master Plan Project Labor Agreement 2002

San Jose McEnery Convention Center Expansion & Renovation 2011*

SOLANO COUNTY

City of Vallejo

City of Vallejo Station Parking Garage Project Labor Agreement 2010

City of Vallejo Ferry Maintenance Facility Improvement Project Project Labor Agreement 2011

YOLO COUNTY

City of West Sacramento

City of West Sacramento Palamidessi Bridge Project Labor Agreement 1996 (Brown and Root)

* I am seeking a copy from the agency.

Project Labor Agreements and Project Labor Agreement Policies at California Counties

ALAMEDA COUNTY

Alameda County – East County Hall of Justice Project Labor Agreement 2012

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY

Contra Costa Regional Medical Center Project Labor Agreement 2004 (Resolution Only)

Contra Costa County Family Law Center Project Labor Agreement 2001 (Resolution Only)

Contra Costa County Project Labor Agreement Policy (Not Implemented) 2002

Contra Costa County Project Labor Agreement Policy Revision 2003

Contra Costa County Standard Project Labor Agreement 2003 (2011 Example)

LOS ANGELES COUNTY

Los Angeles County Martin Luther King, Jr Medical Center Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center Project Labor Agreement 2011

ORANGE COUNTY

Orange County Project Labor Agreement Policy Resolution 2000

Orange County Standard Project Labor Agreement 2000-2005

Orange County Project Labor Agreement Policy Termination 2004

SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY

San Joaquin County New Administration Building Project Labor Agreement 2007

SAN MATEO COUNTY

San Mateo County Replacement Jail Project Labor Agreement 2012

SANTA CLARA COUNTY

Santa Clara County Valley Specialty Center Bid Package #2 Project Labor Agreement 2004

Santa Clara County Project Labor Agreement Policy 2005

Santa Clara County Standard Project Labor Agreement as of 2009

Santa Clara County Replacement Bed Building Project Labor Agreement 2010

SOLANO COUNTY

Solano County New Government Center Project Labor Agreement 2002

Solano County Project Labor Agreement Policy 2004

Solano County Project Labor Agreement Policy Amendment 2007

Solano County Claybank Adult Dentention Center Project Labor Agreement (Signed) 2007

Solano County William J Carroll Government Center Project Labor Agreement 2010

Solano County Claybank Adult Dentention Center Project Labor Agreement in Bid Documents 2012

Unions Win Monopoly Control of Construction at Yet Another Community College in the San Francisco Bay Area: Contra Costa District Gets a Project Labor Agreement

On October 10, 2012, leaders of the Contra Costa County Building and Construction Trades Council finally succeeded in getting the Contra Costa Community College District Governing Board to implement a Project Labor Agreement acceptable to union leaders for future district construction. The vote was 3-1.

This is perhaps the longest crusade ever in California for unions to win a government-mandated Project Labor Agreement. Union officials began targeting the district a dozen years ago, before voters authorized the sale of $120 million in bonds through the first Measure A in the March 2000 election. Voters narrowly authorized the sale of another $286.5 million in bonds by appoving a second Measure A in June 2006, but a tangle of circumstances preserved fair and open competition as the bidding policy of the district.

With the fall of this district to the unions, almost every community college district in the San Francisco Bay Area now requires construction companies to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions in order to work on a taxpayer-funded project in those districts. Below is a status report:

Community College District (CCD) Year as PLA Target Year of PLA Enacted
Peralta CCD (Alameda County) 2004 2004, 2009
Chabot-Las Positas CCD (Alameda County) 2003 2006, 2010
Ohlone CCD (Alameda County) 2002 Not Yet
Contra Costa CCD (Costa Costa County) 2000 2012
College of Marin (Marin County) 2005 2008
Hartnell CCD (Monterey County) 2004 2004; rescinded 2004
Monterey Peninsula College Not Yet Not Yet
Napa Valley College (Napa County) 2004 Not Yet
City College of San Francisco (San Francisco) 2002 2005
San Mateo CCD (San Mateo County) 2002 2002, 2007
Cabrillo College (Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey Counties) 2004 Not Yet
Foothill-DeAnza CCD (Santa Clara County) 2007 2008, 2011
San Jose-Evergreen CCD (Santa Clara County) 2006 2011
West Valley-Mission CCD (Santa Clara County) 2005, 2008 Not Yet
Solano CCD (Solano County) 2003 2004
Santa Rosa Junior College (Sonoma County) 2002, 2005 Not Yet

Note that governing boards of several community college districts in Southern California have also required their construction contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions. Why are community college districts such ripe targets for union control of taxpayer funded construction? Here are my theories:

  1. Most California voters aren’t even aware that community colleges have elected board members. There’s an obscure political vacuum to be filled by opportunistic unions and other special interests of the Left.
  2. Public accountability for board members is almost non-existent. News coverage is weak. Taxpayers are clueless, and students are too busy to focus on the elected leadership of their institution.
  3. Serving on a community college board attracts relatively erudite, ideological people who believe government and education can be useful and appropriate agents to change the world.
  4. For an ambitious politician dreaming of running for a solidly Democrat-controlled state legislative seat when the current occupant is termed out, it’s useful to show evidence of experience in education. Ambitious politicians, of course, also have to be active in enacting policies desired by the various interest groups that provide financial and organizational support in primary campaigns, including construction trade unions.
  5. People attracted to the community college board often respond to policy proposals based on emotion, feelings, and idealism – and not so much on financial analysis.
  6. The main campaign donors to community college board candidates are parties with financial interests in the district; that is, faculty unions and other unions. It’s difficult to find campaign funding for candidates who advocate fiscal responsibility.
  7. There are a lot of cultural disincentives for an advocate of minimalist government and fiscal responsibility to run for a community college board. These college districts are very political, and the political culture is very “progressive.” Boards like to pass resolutions about foreign affairs, global issues, and leftist bugaboos.

Are you an advocate of activist government in California and want to pursue a political career? Run for your community college district board of trustees. You’ll fit right in.

Contra Costa Times Recognizes Fiscally Responsible Candidates for Brentwood City Council: Endorsements EXCLUDE Project Labor Agreement Supporters

The Contra Costa Times newspaper endorsed Bob Brockman, Erick Stonebarger, and Steve Barr for election to the Brentwood City Council in November 2012. See Barr, Brockman, and Stonebarger in Brentwood – Contra Costa Times (editorial) – September 25, 2012.

It did NOT endorse Mayor Bob Taylor or former councilman Chris Becnel.

The Times based its endorsements on candidates’ responses to the city’s $52 million in unfunded pension and health insurance liabilities for city employee benefit programs. Obviously, this is an issue of taxpayers versus unions; the Times sided with the perspective of Brentwood taxpayers.

If the Contra Costa Times had based its endorsements solely on the issue of requiring city contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions, the results would have been the same!

Bob Brockman and Eric Stonebarger sided with taxpayers and fair and open competition. They opposed requiring contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions.

Bob Taylor and Chris Becnel sided with the unions of the Contra Costa County Building and Construction Trades Council. They supported requiring contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions. Becnel was defeated for re-election in 2010 and wants to get back on the city council.

Steve Barr was not on the Brentwood City Council in 2009-2010. (His predecessor Brandon Richey voted for the government-mandated Project Labor Agreement, giving unions a 3-2 victory in winning a monopoly on construction of the civic center and parking garage.)

The behavior of the Brentwood City Council members during this fight over Project Labor Agreements is quite revealing for voters. To give city council members some accountability for their votes in 2009 and 2010, here’s a timeline of what happened, with the original links to newspaper articles (most have expired, regrettably).

March 2009 – Brentwood City Council Considers Requiring Contractors to Sign Project Labor Agreement with Unions to Build Civic Center

On March 24, 2009, the Brentwood City Council voted 4-1 to spend up to $20,000 to commission a study from the union-oriented labor relations consulting firm of Scarth-Lyons & Associates about the feasibility of a Project Labor Agreement to achieve certain goals in the construction of a new city government complex, consisting of new civic center buildings, a new city hall, a plaza, a parking garage, and a new community center. Read an article about the vote:

“Project Labor Agreement” Being Considered for Civic Center – Contra Costa Times – March 25, 2009 (link is expired – go to Contra Costa Times archives)

Scarth-Lyons & Associates always identifies a need for a Project Labor Agreement in its one-sided reports to Northern California local governments. Also complicit in the push for a Project Labor Agreement on the civic center was another usual suspect, the Swinerton construction management firm. These two companies occasionally work together to promote union Project Labor Agreements under the guise of objective analysis, and then they get contracts to negotiate and administer those Project Labor Agreements. In other words, the city hired outside contractors with the knowledge they would reach a predetermined conclusion to require construction contractors to sign a union agreement.

At the March 24, 2009 city council meeting, the head of the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce – an organization ostensibly meant to support small and medium-sized local businesses – inexplicably advocated FOR having the city government require contractors to sign the Project Labor Agreement with unions. Who fed them the union propaganda? What a failure of critical thinking!

April 2009 – Merit Shop Contractors and Unions Clash Over Project Labor Agreement for Brentwood Civic Center Complex

Merit Shop contractors and representatives of various construction trade organizations relentlessly shelled the Brentwood City Council and local community organizations with arguments against the proposed Project Labor Agreement for the city’s planned civic center – so much so that a city council member told a representative of Associated Builders and Contractors on May 4, 2009 that he was “sick of hearing about it.”

The Brentwood Press weekly newspaper reported on the Project Labor Agreement controversy on April 17, 2009: see Labor Issues Overtake Civic Center. Then, on May 1, the Brentwood Press published an opinion piece I wrote in opposition to the Project Labor Agreement: Union-Only Agreement Will Cost Taxpayers.

Several Merit Shop contractors and representatives of Associated Builders and Contractors attended the April 14, 2009 Brentwood City Council meeting to speak during public comment against the proposed Project Labor Agreement. The Contra Costa County Building and Construction Trades Council also showed up with a dozen people to speak during public comment in support of a Project Labor Agreement. As a result, an unexpected 45-minute verbal battle erupted at the council chamber between proponents and opponents of Project Labor Agreements.

A few days before the meeting, households throughout Brentwood had received mailers from the Golden Gate Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors and from the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction criticizing the Project Labor Agreement and urging citizens to contact their city council in opposition to the proposal.

A few days after the April 14, 2009 meeting, Associated Builders and Contractors received a letter from the union-oriented labor relations consulting firm of Scarth-Lyons & Associates asking two questions cleverly written to undermine opposition arguments. (On March 24, 2009, Scarth-Lyons & Associates had been commissioned by the city council for $20,000 to write a study in support of the Project Labor Agreement.) Instead of responding directly to Scarth-Lyons & Associates, Associated Builders and Contractors sent a letter to the city council and top city staff picking apart the questions and asking for council members’ advice on how to answer them. It also provided several charts for the city to ask Scarth-Lyons & Associates to fill out and provide in its report. The charts listed all of the Contra Costa County construction unions and provided blanks for Scarth-Lyons & Associates to fill in regarding vesting periods for pensions, waiting periods for health insurance, underfunding of union pensions and their endangered/critical status, and the amounts for initiation fees and monthly dues.

May 2009 – Brentwood City Council Approves Negotiations with Union Officials for Project Labor Agreement on Civic Center

On May 12, 2009, at a meeting attended by hundreds of people in the construction industry, the Brentwood City Council voted 3-2 to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement with construction unions for a civic center project. About 60 people spoke during public comment – about three-fourths of them were union representatives.

City council members expressed concern about the provisions routinely included in Project Labor Agreements that require non-union contractors to pay employee benefits into union trust funds instead of their own company benefit plans, thus forcing contractors to pay into two plans in order to maintain benefits for their permanent employees.

Associated Builders and Contractors submitted a letter to the mayor and city council asking to be part of the negotiations between two city council members and union representatives. In the meantime, a citizens’ group called Brentwood Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility organized to make the city council accountable for its call for fair language in the Project Labor Agreement.

As noted above, Associated Builders and Contractors and the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction had sent mailers to Brentwood residents in April 2009 urging them to contact the city council against the Project Labor Agreement. The Contra Costa County Building and Construction Trades Council countered by sending a mailer in support of the Project Labor Agreement.

Associated Builders and Contractors tried in vain to convince the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce to take a position in support of fair and open competition and against the Project Labor Agreement.

The union-oriented labor relations consulting firm of Scarth-Lyons & Associates completed its report for the city at a cost to taxpayers of $13,800 (based on billing as of May 12, 2009). As expected, this biased report was clearly written from the presumption that Project Labor Agreements are good public policy and that non-union workers are inferior to union workers because they compete with other applicants to get jobs instead of being dispatched through union referral systems. In a letter, Associated Builders and Contractors had formally asked the city council to evaluate numerous issues that ended up not being addressed in the report. Although some city council members noted that the report was inadequate, Scarth-Lyons ended up managing the Project Labor Agreement negotiations for an additional taxpayer-funded fee.

In response to my opinion piece in the May 1, 2009 Brentwood Press (Union-Only Agreement Will Cost Taxpayers), the head of the Contra Costa County Building and Construction Trades Council wrote an opinion piece (PLAs Boost Quality, Save Money) accusing me of “ignorance and bias.” I admitted to both accusations in my comments posted under his op-ed:

I’m the person being accused of “ignorance and bias” in this opinion piece.

I will admit my bias: I’m biased in favor of fiscal responsibility, effective scrutiny and management of essential government functions, fair and open bid competition, free enterprise, freedom of choice for workers in whether or not to be in a union and how to learn a trade, balanced budgets, low taxes, limited government, reasonable regulations, and the rule of law. I’m biased against coercion, collectivism, and government waste and corruption.

Perhaps I’m ignorant too, in thinking that local elected officials might actually place taxpayers and the majority of workers ahead of their personal ambitions and vanity when considering PLAs. It takes a strong set of principles to withstand the lures and threats of powerful union political machines and their sycophants. Nevertheless, ABC will continue to oppose this PLA proposal, and we look forward to making our final arguments before the city council votes on this PLA on May 12. In the meantime, I hope the citizens of Brentwood will contact their city council members about how their taxpayer money will be spent under this PLA, because your concerns matter most…

See media coverage here:

Talks to Begin on Civic Center PLA – Brentwood Press – May 14, 2009

Brentwood Moves Ahead on Local Labor Requirement for Civic Center – Contra Costa Times – May 13, 2009  (link is expired – go to Contra Costa Times archives)

June 2009 – Brentwood City Council Narrowly Approves Project Labor Agreement for Civic Center

At a special meeting on June 18, 2009, the Brentwood City Council was awash in applause from a large crowd of union activists when it voted 3-2 to approve a negotiated Project Labor Agreement for the Brentwood Civic Center project. Speaking against the Project Labor Agreement were 16 people, while 32 people (mainly affiliated with unions) spoke in favor of it.

Note that the city council in this relatively conservative suburban town consisted of four Republicans and one without a party affiliation, showing that party identification does not always indicate support for fair and open competition. In fact, the city council member most aggressively opposed to fair and open competition (see his quotation below) was Chris Becnel, an alternate member of the Contra Costa County Republican Central Committee. (He was forced out of that position because of his support for the Project Labor Agreement.)

Erick Stonebarger and Robert Brockman were the two votes against the Project Labor Agreement. In particular, Councilman Brockman was an exceptional speaker against the Project Labor Agreement. He actually took the time to read the Project Labor Agreement, and he accurately interpreted many of the egregious provisions at the meeting.

In a letter dated June 5, 2009, Mayor Robert Taylor declined to honor the request of Associated Builders and Contractors to the city council to participate in Project Labor Agreement negotiations. (The mayor voted for the Project Labor Agreement.) A group called Brentwood Citizens for Fiscal Accountability held an organizational meeting on June 8 to monitor the Project Labor Agreement negotiations, but it was unable to make a difference in such a short time period.

Prominent at the June 18, 2009 meeting in advocating for this Project Labor Agreement was the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a liberal political advocacy group for Latinos.  However, a Roman Catholic priest who administered an opening prayer for a Project Labor Agreement at the May 26 meeting was not present to call for God’s presence at this meeting.

Some of you in ABC may be wealthy enough not to think that, that $10,000 is not a significant number…it is a significant number…

Brentwood City Councilman Chris Becnel, trying to incite class resentment against contractors while talking about the $10,000 penalty for unions if they go on strike despite the no-strike promise in the Project Labor Agreement.

Media Coverage:

Brentwood Council Approves PLA for Civic Center – Brentwood Press – June 19, 2009

Brentwood Adopts Divisive Civic Center Agreement – Contra Costa Times – June 19, 2009  (link is expired – go to Contra Costa Times archives)

Pro-Union Pact Spurs GOP Reaction – Contra Costa Times – July 4, 2009  (link is expired – go to Contra Costa Times archives)

September 2009 – Bid Deadline for Brentwood Civic Center is also Day to Protest Councilman Becnel’s Vote for Government-Mandated Project Labor Agreement

The September 2, 2009 bid deadline for the Brentwood Civic Center resulted in eleven contractors bidding out of the 20 that pre-qualified. That day also featured a picket in front of Councilman Chris Becnel’s office by opponents of the Project Labor Agreement. Flyers were posted around town at businesses and public bulletin boards featuring Councilman Becnel’s picture and describing his vote. The Contra Costa Times newspaper reported on the protest:

Unperturbed by this week’s demonstration, Becnel said he thinks he has rankled the nonunion contingent by pointing out that in choosing not to bid on the project — because they don’t want to be bound by union rules — these businesses are denying their employees a chance to work.

Eric Christen, executive director of Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said he and others are targeting Becnel because of insults like these.

“As if he knows what’s best for these workers! The arrogance is breathtaking,” Christen said.

Bids Lower Than Expected on Brentwood Project – Contra Costa Times – September 3, 2009  (link is expired – go to Contra Costa Times archives)

January 2010 – Enthralled with Unions, Majority on Brentwood City Council Expands Project Labor Agreement to Additional Construction

On January 26, 2010 the Brentwood City Council voted 3-1 over the objections of representatives of Associated Builders and Contractors to expand coverage of the Project Labor Agreement for the new Brentwood Civic Center to an adjacent parking garage. For additional insult to taxpayers, the city council approved an additional payment not to exceed $12,500 for the union-oriented consulting firm of Scarth-Lyons & Associates to change the wording of the Project Labor Agreement to include the parking garage and take on supposed additional administrative services. The city council has now approved an amount not to exceed $57,500 to Scarth-Lyons to administer the Project Labor Agreement. Councilman Bob Brockman voted against the resolution; Councilman Erick Stonebarger was absent.

A Compilation of Construction Trade Union Project Labor Agreements (aka Project Stabilization Agreements) for K-12 School Districts in Contra Costa County

Author of Most Comprehensive Study on the Cost of Project Labor Agreements Speaks in Contra Costa County, California and Earns Inflatable Rat Balloon Greeting

UPDATE: see coverage of the meeting by Lisa Vorderbrueggen of the Contra Costa Times newspaper in “Political Blotter: Politics in the Bay Area and Beyond:”

Was that a Rat on Contra Costa Boulevard? – Contra Costa Times – May 18, 2012


This morning I went to a meeting of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association featuring a presentation by Erik Bruvold, the President and CEO of the National University System Institute for Policy Research, based in San Diego. This institute describes itself as “a groundbreaking economic think tank that promotes high quality economic, policy, and public-opinion research to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of local governments.”

Bruvold is the lead author of “Measuring the Costs of Project Labor Agreements on School Construction in California.” Published in July 2011, this study is the most comprehensive statistical assessment ever done about the fiscal impact of government-mandated Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), with a sample size five times larger than any other study. The study takes into account several potential cost variables overlooked in earlier PLA studies, and it was reviewed for its credibility and accuracy by economists at The Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California.

It was appropriate for Bruvold to make a major public presentation in Contra Costa County, located in the San Francisco Bay Area with a population of 1.1 million. For 20 years, Contra Costa County has been a hotbed of political and legal battles over government-mandated Project Labor Agreements. In fact, in some ways Contra Costa County has been a national leader in the union strategic effort to use government-mandated Project Labor Agreements as a tool to gain market share of taxpayer-funded construction.

For example, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors was the first government in California to require contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement for a public project (the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in 1994 – see background here). In 2001, the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council and the City of Richmond (in Contra Costa County) joined the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO in a court challenge to President George W. Bush’s Executive Order 13202 prohibiting federal funding on construction projects on which governments require contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions as a condition of work. (The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the lawsuit in Building and Construction Trades Department AFL-CIO v. Allbaugh, No. 01-5436.)

The Contra Costa Taxpayers Association describes itself as “a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting accountable, cost-effective and efficient government and opposing unnecessary taxes and spending.” This organization has long opposed government-mandated Project Labor Agreements – not surprising when the study “Measuring the Costs of Project Labor Agreements on School Construction in California” indicates a 13-15% increased cost of construction when the bid specifications of school districts require contractors to sign a PLA.

Obviously this study irks union officials. Several dozen union picketers and an inflatable rat balloon were in front of the Hyatt House in Pleasant Hill to greet the 93 meeting attendees.

In addition, two union officials (Aram Hodess, who is a California Apprenticeship Council commissioner and business manager of UA Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 159, and Kevin VanBuskirk, who is a business representative of the Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 104) were handing out this double-sided flyer at the front door of the hotel.

I felt Bruvold did an excellent job in explaining the following: (1) his institute spent a year collecting and confirming data from school districts, state governments, and the McGraw-Hill publishing company, (2) his institute’s study is exceptional for its large sample size and its effort to account for numerous potential variables, (3) California has rigid school construction standards that minimize cost variables and allow for reasonable comparisons, and (4) a weakness of the study is that it’s impossible to completely disentangle the increased costs of Project Labor Agreements from the increased costs of construction at the Los Angeles Unified School District. Bruvold also rebutted the argument that cost differences were the result of different government-mandated construction wage rates (so-called prevailing wages).

A bunch of union people attended the meeting and asked questions afterwards. Bruvold remained calm and objective throughout his presentation. He declined to speculate much on why school construction costs more under a Project Labor Agreement and why school construction costs more at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

I’ll tell you what I think. School construction costs more under a Project Labor Agreement because non-union contractors generally refuse to bid on projects with a PLA, and subcontractors generally refuse to participate in bids. Less competition means higher costs.

This common sense observation is confirmed by studies done by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University on school construction in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, as well as anecdotal evidence from 15 projects across the country bid both with and without a PLA.

I contend that school construction costs more at the Los Angeles Unified School District because of what I call the “Urban Corruption Variable.” In fact, I encourage someone to commission the National University System Institute for Policy Research to perform the same research but try to isolate the Corruption Variable and rank the waste, fraud, and abuse at the state’s school districts from best to worst. Contact Erik Bruvold here to inquire about the cost of performing this study.

Symbol of Municipal Bankruptcy: Abandoned Mixed-Use Development in California Saddled with a Project Labor Agreement

Rule of Thumb: when you hear about a failed construction project in California, assume that the government or the developer required contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement to build it.

Case in point: an article in the April 7, 2012 San Francisco Chronicle about the anticipated bankruptcy of the City of Hercules, in Contra Costa County, in the San Francisco Bay Area. (See “Hercules Teeters on Brink of Bankruptcy.”)

The article leads off with this sentence: “If there’s a symbol of California cities’ economic hangover, it’s a pair of four-story, half-finished, plastic-wrapped apartment buildings in Hercules.”

Although I was not familiar with this specific project, immediately I guessed that the city or the developer required the construction contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement. This project is located in an area where construction unions often exercise their political clout and also routinely abuse the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) – a tactic also known as “greenmail” – when needed to extract Project Labor Agreements from gullible governments and vulnerable developers.

Additional evidence suggesting a Project Labor Agreement was provided in the article’s second sentence: “The city sank $38 million into those buildings, a 144,000-square-foot redevelopment project gone awry. Last week, the City Council sold the buildings for $425,000.”

So I checked on this project. Sure enough, on September 22, 2009, the Redevelopment Agency of the City of Hercules voted to authorize its executive director to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with the Contra Costa County Building and Construction Trades Council and its affiliated unions.

Placed on the meeting’s consent calendar, the resolution authorizing the Project Labor Agreement claimed that this kind of union agreement (1) provides the skilled labor pool needed to build the project, (2) creates employment opportunities to local residents and members of surrounding communities, including returning military veterans, (3) promotes safety, quality, productivity and labor harmony, (4) reduces the possibility of delays, and (5) maximizes cost savings through timely project completion. See the resolution here.

See the Project Labor Agreement itself here. The staff report associated with the resolution states that “This agreement is modeled after a similar agreement entered by the City of Brentwood.” Apparently this Project Labor Agreement has the same language as the one approved in May 2009 on a 3-2 vote of the Brentwood City Council for the new Brentwood Civic Center (and later including the adjacent parking structure).

I’m sure the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council would claim that the Project Labor Agreement had nothing to do with the $37.5 million financial loss on this half-finished fiasco. Project Labor Agreements maximize cost savings through timely project completion, except when they do not maximize cost savings through timely project completion.