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SRJC board set to vote on contentious labor agreement for $23 million project

Burbank Auditorium (Chris Chung/The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

The battle over a labor union-backed plan for managing large construction projects is scheduled to resume Tuesday before the Santa Rosa Junior College board of trustees.

Organized labor, with a growing presence in Sonoma County, is pushing for adoption of special agreements that apply union rules and benefits to major projects, like the junior college’s planned $23 million remodeling of Burbank Auditorium.

A coalition of business interests and taxpayer advocates is fighting back, contending the agreements, widely used throughout California’s community college system, curb competitive bidding and raise costs.

The dispute will come to a head as the seven-member board considers a 31-page project stabilization agreement negotiated by Frank Chong, the junior college’s president, and Jack Buckhorn, head of the Sonoma Lake & Mendocino Counties Building & Construction Trades Council.

“I’m sure it will be lively,” Buckhorn said, noting that dozens of union members and supporters will likely turn out, just as they did for a public hearing on the matter in June.

“It could end up being a circus,” said Rick Call, a Santa Rosa businessman who last year lost the seat he had held on the SRJC board for two dozen years.

In 2002, the trustees rejected a labor proposal for a similar pact, often called a project labor agreement, Call said.

In June, the trustees voted 4-3 to authorize Chong to negotiate an agreement that could be applied to one of the campus projects funded by a $410 million bond measure approved by voters in 2014.

Chong said Friday the proposed agreement — applied to the auditorium renovation — is basically a test.

“I think the board is willing to take a look at it,” he said. “We’ll see how it works.”

Whether the agreement provides cost containment, promotes the involvement of local businesses and workers, and bolsters an apprenticeship program will be key “metrics” in determining its success, he said.

The agreement envisions a program that will award associate degrees to men and women who complete construction trades apprenticeships, Chong said.

All workers will be paid the “prevailing wage” set by the state’s Division of Industrial Relations, based on a survey of actual wage rates for all public works projects, Buckhorn said.

Workers will become union members and pay union dues while they work on the junior college project, regardless of whether they come in as union members or not, officials said.

The agreement prohibits strikes, picketing and work stoppages, as well as lockouts by contractors, and requires arbitration for any violations of the agreement alleged by a contractor or union.

“Labor and management get together and we work out potential problems before the first shovel hits the ground,” Buckhorn said. The major goal is to “deliver (the project) on time and on budget.”

That may be true, Call said, but “it’s going to be a higher budget.”

He and other members of an informal coalition opposing the project labor agreement, including the North Coast Builders Exchange, contend the agreements boost costs and should never be applied to taxpayer-funded projects.

“I just feel it’s very discriminatory,” Call said.

Any contractor who bids on a job with such an agreement must build in the costs of complying with it, he said.

Some estimates say a labor agreement boosts costs 10 percent to 20 percent, Call said, but even if it’s only 5 percent “that’s a lot of money.”

Chong said he wants to see what impact the agreement has on costs.

“I think it keeps everybody honest and it promotes accountability,” he said.

The trustees will meet in open session to discuss the labor agreement and other business at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Student Activities Center.