Santa Rosa Junior College is poised to take a first step toward adopting a disputed policy that would require union rules, benefits and oversight on a large construction project bankrolled by the $410 million bond approved by voters in 2014 to upgrade campus facilities.
College trustees on Tuesday will consider opening negotiations with organized labor to craft a so-called project labor agreement covering a single major upcoming project, such as the planned $60 million science, technology, engineering and math building.
In doing so, the seven-member board is wading into highly contested territory, opening up a new political front in the long-running and increasingly fierce turf war between union and nonunion construction forces in the county.
“The board has never done this before, so in that sense it would be a sea change for them,” said Maggie Fishman, who ousted a longtime board member in 2014 and is now chairwoman.
Supporters of organized labor say requiring union rules and benefits for such projects ensures workers are treated fairly, encourages local hiring, guarantees work is completed to high standards and helps complex construction projects go smoothly.
Opponents argue such deals undermine competitive bidding, interfere with the efficient management of projects, discriminate against nonunion contractors and drive up costs.
At the moment, union forces appear to have the upper hand in the simmering debate.
After years of resistance from Sonoma County governments, in 2014 the county became the first local entity to require the labor deals on its largest projects. The Board of Supervisors set the threshold at $10 million or more, and negotiations are underway for first qualifying project, the proposed $68 million detention and probation facility at the county government center.
Now the seven-member Junior College board appears open to introducing such deals, a stance made possible by a pronounced shakeup since 2014 that saw several longtime board members considered more conservative ousted by candidates backed by organized labor and the county’s Democratic Party. In addition to Fishman, they include Mariana Martinez, Dorothy Battenfeld and Jordan Burns.
SRJC President Frank Chong, after listening to a March session analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of the labor deals and consulting with trustees, says the case in favor of them is strong enough to merit further inquiry.
“I think there is enough here to enter into single-project negotiation whereby we can find out what are some of the attributes that would make a PLA workable and desirable at the JC,” Chong said.
Chong wants to see whether the school can strike a deal that encourages the hiring of more local workers, funds apprenticeship programs and contains costs.
If approved, Chong proposes to hire experienced Vallejo labor attorney Mike Vlaming to help the district craft an agreement, which would need to be approved by the trustees.
“I will only bring forward a PLA that I think is in the best interests of school and the community,” Chong said.
The negotiations would be with the Sonoma Lake & Mendocino Counties Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents unionized contractors, and its chief executive, Jack Buckhorn, a veteran union leader.
The goal is to have the pilot agreement cover a single major facility project, see how it goes and then decide whether the labor deals make sense for other projects, Chong said.