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Sonoma County spurns blanket union plan for big public projects

  • Those in favor of project labor agreements, including George Steffenson, right, apprenticeship coordinator for Santa Rosa Operating Engineers Local 3, raise their hands during a meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)

A split Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rejected a disputed policy that would have required union rules, benefits and oversight for all workers on large county construction projects.

Nearly five hours into a hearing before a standing-room-only crowd, the board was opposed, 3-2, to the blanket policy and let it die. It would have backed a pre-hire collective bargaining deal, called a project labor agreement, on all county construction projects of at least $25 million.

Without support for that move, supervisors quickly pivoted Tuesday and unanimously backed a proposal to pursue a narrower deal that would apply the same sort of agreement to just one project, the planned $54 million expansion of runways at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

The compromise was a victory of sorts for the non-union contractors and trade groups that opposed the wider policy, concerned it would edge them out of competition for projects or force them to act as union employers.

Business and taxpayer groups also opposed the policy, saying it lacked details and would add additional compensation and negotiation costs to county construction projects.

"Entering into an agreement that's not yet defined is not a good business practice," said Sean Beehler, vice chairman of the advocacy council for the Santa Rosa Chamber Commerce.

Supervisors Valerie Brown, David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo opposed the blanket policy, saying it could disadvantage some non-union workers and overly complicate bidding on county projects.

"Convince me what I'm getting for the additional cost," said Rabbitt. "Or convince me there is no additional cost. No one has convinced me of anything."

The outcome was a setback for trade union members, who touted the policy as a way to promote local hiring, enhance job training and extend union benefits to non-union workers on county jobs.

It was also a political blow to Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, who had advocated strongly for the blanket policy, tying it to county economic development efforts and a broader campaign to protect the middle class.

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