After a two-year battle, the Santa Barbara City Council took its second-to-last step in the approval process of requiring project labor agreements for construction projects that cost $5 million or more.
A PLA, also referred to as a community workforce agreement, establishes terms and conditions of employment for construction projects, and will apply to all contractors and subcontractors who bid on projects covered by it.
Provisions generally include: uniform work conditions; hiring procedures, including allowances for a contractor’s “core” workers; wages and benefits; management rights; expedited labor dispute resolution procedures; no-strike commitments and procedures to prevent work stoppages; and agreement to adhere to existing master labor agreements for the trades subject to the PLA.
The purpose of the agreements is to promote participation in covered projects from targeted categories of workers, including local area residents, apprentices, historically under-utilized residents and businesses, at-risk persons, veterans, minority-owned businesses and disadvantaged business enterprises.
City staff had been executing contracts for expert legal and technical support in the negotiation of a community workforce agreement with the Tri-County Building & Construction Trades Council, who will represent labor unions signatory to the PLA, such as electricians, plumbers, ironworkers and other construction trades.
The city and the Trades Council reached agreement on most terms, but council discussed and decided on the outstanding terms, which included: a local participation goal; core workers; benefit plans; and construction inspection and material testing.
The council members approved the agreement terms by a 6-1 vote, settling on the following: requiring a local participation goal of 50%; allowing only three non-union core workers, and a one-to-one ratio after that until there are six coworkers; requiring all contractors to pay into the union trust; and including construction inspection and material testing in the PLA.
“In its early phases, the concept of a PLA… it had a little bit of controversy and quite a bit of confusion,” Council member Meagan Harmon said. “Simply put, a PLA is just good public policy. It’s good public policy for us to keep local work for local workers. It’s good public policy for us to work actively and cooperatively with our local unions.
“Our local unions provide the pathway for good, sustainable, well-paid careers — not jobs, but careers.”
She said that PLAs are not anti-union or anti-competition, and reminded the public that any contractor, union or non-union, can still bid on a covered project, as long as they agree with the framework.
The council member also highlighted the solidified timeline, predictable costs and localized work. However, Ms. Harmon supported removing the local participation goal altogether, as she didn’t believe it had any force or effect.
“It is for projects over $5 million,” said Council member Eric Friedman said. “That gets lost sometimes, and (people think) that we’re putting this on all projects.”
He said that, according to a former presentation from staff, from 2004 to 2019, there were only 19 contracts over a 15-year period that were more than $5 million.
“You’re talking about less than about one project a year, so a vast majority of projects are not even going to be affected by the workforce agreement.”
Council member Mike Jordan was the dissenting vote on the matter, expressing concerns with the push to remove the local participation goal and paying into benefits the workers may never vest in.
“The good public policy that she (Ms. Harmon) described and narrated on, which is entirely a great thing to ascribe to, has been accomplished for decades and decades here already by our local employers that do our projects,” Mr. Jordan said. “Many times, these local employers, and many times their employees, are even multi-generational community members, not just someone that’s here and gone and retires to Arizona.
“Not giving them a credible and viable path into this process, I think, loses sight of at least what was my number one goal and that is a credible pathway for local employers and employees to participate in a PLA.”
Council member Kristen Sneddon also disagreed with the idea of removing the local participation goal, and said she couldn’t support it unless there was a goal included, so the council settled on 50%.
While the PLAs are a reality for Santa Barbara at this point and the discussion was mostly ironing out details, contractors, both union and non-union, spoke up in public comment about the philosophy of PLAs as a whole.
Russell Johnson spoke on behalf of the Central Coast Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, and said that the more core workers the contractors can use, the greater the local participation will be.
“If you do not give local contractors these abilities to bid with utilizing their core workers and utilizing their own health and retirement plans, you make it harder for them to even participate in your jobs. They’re going to go elsewhere and work on other jobs,” he said.
Eric Christen is the executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction. He told the News-Press that he believes PLAs discriminate against non-union workers.
“The tortured logic that was used to justify workers having money stolen out of their paychecks that they’ll never get back is supporting wage theft,” he said.
He added that city staff suggested a local participation goal of at least 75%.
“They put a 75% goal and the unions came back with a lower threshold than the city has already accomplished through their current vetting procedures,” Mr. Christen said. “The question is what’s the problem? These guys are not just beholden to unions and special interests, but they truly believe if you do not belong to one, you’re somehow lesser than.”
Mr. Christen said he’s also concerned with his contractors, both union and non-union, paying into pensions they’ll never vest in.
“They say, ‘Well, if you stay and work for the union long enough’ — it’s five to 10 years,” he said. “Why are they having to pay into a union pension? My workers already have non-union health and pension plans.”
He said that only six core workers being allowed to work “with all kinds of people you have no relationship with assuming liability for what they produce. That’s insane.”
He concluded saying that the PLAs will result in less bidders, meaning more expensive projects and more taxpayer dollars, and the coalition will be watching it all.
Mayor Cathy Murillo told the News-Press that the program gives unionized workers a fair chance at getting the work, and said things such as the local participation goal can be adjusted as time goes on.
In 2019, she and Mayor Pro Tempore Oscar Gutierrez sponsored a Career and Apprenticeship Fair at Casa de la Raza with trade representatives tabling and speaking with high schoolers considering a career in construction, including women.
“The construction trades actively recruit women into their ranks. Because of this new CWA program, we will organize more recruiting efforts,” she said. “It makes good sense that our taxpayer dollars that fund public works projects should benefit our local youth, who will be trained in construction, then get the jobs created by city projects.”
During the meeting, the mayor painted a scenario of a teenager or young adult driving past a building in their hometown and being able to say, “Hey, I was a part of that.”
In light of opposition, Mayor Murillo said, “Remember, the goal is to make sure trained and skilled union workers get a fair shot at the work. We decided that non-union contractors should pay for their employee benefits, and pay into the union benefit funds, which are usually more generous to the worker.”
She referenced that many other jurisdictions in the state have already adopted project labor agreements, such as Oxnard and parts of Ventura County.
She concluded at the meeting, “If we have a program like this at the city and we have the training programs and get our youth in them, then there will be more union workers doing the work that’s fully in compliance with all of the state safety rules. There won’t be wage theft. There’ll be more recruitment of women, people of color, people let out of prison. I know that the unions really do try to diversify their workforce.
“I’m convinced that we really do need to do this program.”