A disputed policy that would require union rules, benefits and oversight on County of Sonoma construction projects of $10 million or more was formally approved Tuesday on a 4-0 vote by the Board of Supervisors.
The decision greenlighting project labor agreements was hailed by union officials as a historic vote that will bolster the middle class. Unaffiliated builders and trade groups, however, lambasted the policy, saying it will undermine competitive bidding and drive up taxpayer construction costs.
The two camps, which have battled over the issue for years, are now bracing for a wider fight as unions prepare to seek similar labor deals across the public sector in Sonoma County.
The next stop is Santa Rosa, where union leaders said the City Council may take up the issue next month in a study session.
"We believe this will be the beginning of using project labor agreements to manage risk on these very complicated public projects," said Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, a large coalition of private and public labor groups that has spearheaded the push for the union rules.
The vote was scheduled on the supervisors' consent agenda and came with almost no board discussion and no one from the audience rising to speak. That was in stark contrast to the five-hour hearing two weeks ago, when the board gave its preliminary endorsement after hearing from more than 70 speakers voicing their support or opposition to the policy.
Supervisors Shirlee Zane, Mike McGuire, Susan Gorin and Efren Carrillo voted to approve the measure Tuesday. Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board chairman, was absent from the meeting on family business.
The approval came over the continued objection of non-union builders, who say such deals discourage their firms from competing for projects, force them to act as union employers and drive up construction costs.
The county "will get far less competitive bidding now," said Monica Soiland Nelson, president of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa-based trade group. She claimed the vote amounted to a show of political loyalty by supervisors to union interests.
"It almost seemed like the supervisors voted on it like they had to and not because they were really truly looking at what the best decision was for taxpayers," Soiland Nelson said.
Union leaders, for their part, have acknowledged their newfound political strength on the county board. Their majority was solidified by Gorin's election in late 2012, months after a differently composed Board of Supervisors opposed a previous project labor policy on a 3-2 stand, without a formal vote. Carrillo and Rabbitt were in the majority, with Zane and McGuire in the minority.
Supporters tout project labor agreements as a way to promote local hiring, enhance job training and extend union benefits to nonunion workers. They reject claims that such deals add to taxpayers' construction costs, citing terms that they say limit cost overruns and labor strife on large construction projects.
"Until you actually have a (project labor agreement) and live it and see it and breathe it, you're going to have some reservations," Buckhorn said. "We're going to prove that it works."
The policy approved by the board was stripped two weeks ago of a key provision opposed by unions but sought by Rabbitt and Carrillo to show any impacts such contracts would have on taxpayer costs. It would have established an alternative bid process without the union rules to compete against bids conforming to union rules.