"So here's the primary question we have: What problem is being resolved by adopting a policy such as this? ... There's no evidence of construction delays, cost overruns or unfair labor practices on county projects that might warrant such a solution. And why now? Given that so many in the building industry are struggling to find work, the timing couldn't be worse."
-#8212; <i>Press Democrat Editorial, Sept. 16, 2012</i>
Sixteen months later, the issue of project labor agreements is back before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. And we are asking the same question -#8212; why?
What is broken that requires this kind of fix, one that has the potential to drive up the cost of publicly funded projects while essentially discouraging if not excluding local nonunion employers from being a part of the competitive-bid process?
Today, the Board of Supervisors will discuss a proposal that would require project labor agreements on all federally funded county projects or more than $25 million and on locally or state-funded projects costing $10 million or more.
Project labor agreements are a management system for projects that essentially ties workers to union rules, benefits and oversight. It's an agreement that sets the terms of employment on an entire construction project -#8212; terms that must be followed by anyone bidding on a contract.
Such agreements have their upside. For example, they help bolster local apprentice programs, which traditionally are run by unions. But they also require nonunion contractors essentially to act as union employers and require workers to pay union dues, potentially discouraging nonunion employers from bidding on projects.
We applaud the county for its efforts to come up with a compromise agreement that would resolve many of the inequities of traditional project labor agreements. For example, the proposal before the supervisors would create an alternative bidding process -#8212; without the union obligations -#8212; that would allow nonunion contractors to compete on certain qualifying projects. Overall, we have few complaints with the compromise plan developed by Supervisors David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo. But we have little confidence that this is the plan that will be approved.
Local unions appear unwilling to agree to such a compromise, thus setting the stage for an all-or-nothing proposition.
So what is different this time around? With the addition of Susan Gorin on the Board of Supervisors, it appears the unions believe they have the votes they need to get what they want, whether it's in the best interests of the public or not. We will find out soon enough.
However they vote, supervisors should be reminded of their fiduciary obligation to spend the public's money wisely. They also should be reminded that if their objective is to support local vocational and apprenticeship programs, there are loss costly and less divisive ways to go about it.
Beyond that, it's not clear what county taxpayers get out of this deal -#8212; other than higher costs.