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Push for worker benefits on Sonoma County projects returns

  • 9/19/2012: A1:

    PC: Those in favor of Planned Labor Agreements (PLA's) including George Steffenson, right, of Santa Rosa an Operating Engineers (Local 3) Apprenticeship Coordinator, raise their hands during a meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Tuesday August 18, 2012. The board is in the process of debating the awarding of large construction projects to PLA's. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

A renewed bid by unions and their supporters to establish union rules, benefits and oversight for all workers on large county construction projects is coming back to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors next week.

The move, which narrowly failed to advance at the county board in 2012, has faced strong opposition from nonunion contractors and trade groups, which contend the policy would edge them out of competition for projects, force them to act as union employers and drive up construction costs for taxpayers.

"It's about market share," said Ken Kreischer, chief financial officer of Santa Rosa-based Western Water Constructors Inc. and a spokesman for a coalition of nonunion shops opposed to such deals. "They (unions) want the public works projects to be union-only."

Unions dispute those claims and last year they resumed their push for the policy, emboldened by a new three-member majority on the Board of Supervisors secured through Susan Gorin's 2012 election victory.

They tout the pre-hire collective bargaining deals, called project labor agreements, as a way to promote local hiring, enhance job training and extend union benefits to nonunion workers on county jobs.

"What we're trying to do is encourage a local workforce and support the local economy," said Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, a large coalition of private and public sector labor groups.

The issue has prompted heated debate among supporters and critics, including a standing-room-only crowd at a nearly five-hour hearing of the Board of Supervisors in September 2012.

Tuesday's hearing, set for 10 a.m., promises to be equally well-attended, with both camps planning to turn out their ranks.

This time around, however, the altered political landscape has shifted the starting point of the discussion. The central question now is how strongly union interests may carry the day.

Nonunion contractors concede they are just trying to limit their losses, endorsing parts of a new proposal coming from the county but remaining opposed to project labor deals outright.


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