A political football that’s been kicked around for decades on the national scene dropped into the middle of the Brentwood civic center project this week – and it wasn’t even on the schedule. The contest, in which organized labor is going up against non-union shops for a shot at work on the $64 million first phase of construction, ended in a tie.
At issue is a possible project labor agreement (PLA) for the building of the first phase of the new civic center. PLAs are collective bargaining agreements that standardize work rules for all companies working on large, long-term and complex construction projects involving multiple crafts. The rules are typically drawn from existing union collective bargaining agreements, and often involve goals such as hiring local workers for the project. PLAs also often contain no-strike clauses and establish procedures for handling grievances, all of which are aimed at preventing costly delays in construction.
Non-union companies are permitted to bid on projects covered by PLAs, but many won’t. PLAs require that, for the duration of the contract, non-union shops pay initiation and dues for all of their workers, as well as contribute to union pension plans. Workers must report to union halls for dispatching, with the possibility that they could be sent to another job instead, and that different workers could be sent to the former non-union shop’s job site.
Organizations such as the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of California vociferously oppose PLAs, calling them a tool through which unions can control the construction market. Other groups, such as the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council, enthusiastically support them.
The battle over PLAs has gone back and forth on a national level for years. Use of PLAs on federal projects was outlawed by President George Bush, re-instated by President Bill Clinton, re-outlawed by President George W. Bush and recently re-instated again by President Barack Obama.
On March 24, the Brentwood City Council agreed to pay Scarth-Lyons and Associates $20,000 to study whether a PLA made sense for the civic center. That drew a packed room to this week’s council meeting, even though the issue was not on the agenda.
Speaking during the meeting’s public-comments period, Kevin Dayton of the ABC said he fully expected Scarth-Lyons’ recommendation to be in favor of a PLA. “Scarth-Lyons & Associates will always recommend use of a PLA,” he said. “They make a living negotiating and administering labor agreements with unions.”
Chief among Dayton’s concerns is the requirement that to participate in a PLA-governed project, the union contributions a contractor must make can double his overhead because pensions and other benefits they already pay do not fulfill the terms of the PLA and must be augmented by the union contributions. Several other speakers, mostly representatives of small, local contracting firms, also said the rule made it impossible for them to be competitive.
Greg Feere, CEO of the Trades Council, spoke in favor of PLAs, saying they guaranteed the best, union-trained workers would be used, and the project would be built better, which in the long run means it would cost less. In a phone interview on Wednesday, Feere said he had often heard the “double benefits” argument, but had never actually seen a documented case after researching the matter for 10 years.
On Tuesday, seven speakers spoke in support of PLAs, citing the need for local union workers to have local jobs, the superiority of union training, the effectiveness of the agreements at avoiding work stoppages, and completing projects on time and on budget.
Seven speakers opposed PLAs, claiming they were unfair to non-union workers who account for 77 to 80 percent of the local labor force, citing strong-arm recruiting methods unions use once they obtain personal information on their workers (which must be supplied to the union hall), and the concerns for the advice the city was likely to get from Scarth-Lyons.
The council, on the other hand, said nothing, prevented from doing so by the Brown Act, and the fact that the issue was not on the agenda. In agreeing to the study last month, however, the council indicated that the local hiring provisions and the grievance procedures that could help avoid delays were points of interest that made PLAs worth investigating.
The issue is expected to return to the council May 12 for a decision on whether to pursue a PLA. Both sides of the disagreement plan to also be on hand.