City-approved Project Labor Agreement is bad news for workers and taxpayers
Editor’s note: Eric Christen is the executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, a statewide advocacy group for workers, apprentices and contractors.
More than 10 years after big labor special interests started pushing for a monopoly Project Labor Agreement on taxpayer-funded city construction projects, the Santa Barbara City Council, led by Mayor Cathy Murillo, codified this discrimination into law on July 20 when the council voted 5-2 to approve a discriminatory PLA for all city projects valued at more than $5 million.
The mayor was joined in her support for this exclusion and waste of taxpayer money by Councilmembers Eric Friedman, Oscar Gutierrez, Alejandra Gutierrez and Meagan Harmon.
The two votes to protect worker and taxpayer rights were by Councilman Mike Jordan and Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon.
Councilmember Jordan devastatingly pointed out, and was not refuted, that any union-free worker who worked under the PLA would be forced to pay their pension and health benefit monies, more than $20 per hour, to union trust funds, which can take up to 10 years to vest in — thereby all but guaranteeing these monies would be lost to the employee.
This is wage theft, and this is what Mayor Murillo, despite any excuse she can muster, and the other four voted to sanction.
The PLA also keeps local non-union companies, who represent more than 80% of the local construction workforce, from using any more than six of their own employees. Everyone else must come from a union.
The PLA then forces those workers to not only pay into the aforementioned union trust funds, they’ll never vest in but also forces them to pay union dues to a private group they want nothing to do with. Lastly the PLA explicitly forbids young men and women in union-free apprentice programs from working at all.
Santa Barbara County has been PLA-free up to this point despite years of big labor pressure to gain a monopoly. But just to the north, the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District placed a PLA on its new wastewater treatment plant, and the results were dramatic.
Three of the five original bidders dropped out, and the winning bid was 40% over the bid estimate. The reason? Local contractors will not bid for work that results in them only being able to use a few of their workers — and those workers they can use are forced to be paid less. Reduced bidders result in increased costs as the city of Santa Barbara is about to learn the hard way.
At the City Council’s previous meeting regarding PLAs, city staff had laid out how the unions were not willing to negotiate on the issues of letting workers keep their money, local contractors being able to use their own local workforce, or having a local hire goal of 75%.
Ironically it was PLA proponents who first brought up the “local hire” issue when they first proposed the PLA. But as staff showed at the meeting, city projects are already achieving 55-75% local hire. The unions instead countered with a 30% (!) local hire goal.
Why on earth the embarrassing low figure if this is what the PLA was really all about? Because it’s not what it is about.
This was shown to be the case when, despite a majority of the council having told staff over a year ago to fight for a high local hire percentage and workers being able to keep their pay, that tune had changed by the time this meeting came around.
Fidelity to big labor special interests who fund their campaigns was suddenly the only thing the council members wanted to talk about. The embarrassing spectacle was kicked off by Councilwoman Harmon who, understanding staff’s local hire data was devastating to union rationale as to why the PLA was needed in the first place, actually moved to have the local hire goals dropped all together! After she was called on this blatant hypocrisy by Councilwoman Sneddon, a figure of 50% local hire, still lower than what the city is already achieving, was added back into the final motion.
Councilmember Jordan summed up what this was really all about when he stated that the purported reasoning behind the PLA, high wages, local hire and quality construction was already being achieved by the city on all its work and had been for decades.
In the end, the debate really came down to politicians rewarding ideological allies who will fund their campaigns. Truly a shameful process for all of Santa Barbara.
In the upcoming city elections, voters need to remember who stood for discrimination and waste and who stood for equity, workers and taxpayers.