As the Santa Rosa Junior College marches ahead with a plan to revamp aging facilities by spending $410 million in voter-approved bonds, a contentious debate is looming.
Supporters of organized labor want to ensure that union rules and benefits are in place for many of those building projects, a proposal nonunion contractors oppose, maintaining it undermines competitive bidding and drives up costs. The issue is up for a discussion at a special meeting on Tuesday of the SRJC Board of Trustees.
“This topic is very emotional and controversial,” said SRJC President Frank Chong. “I think both arguments have some merit, but the truth lies somewhere in between.”
So-called project labor agreements mandate union rules, benefits and oversight on construction projects. They have been cause for debate between local supporters and opponents for years, largely in a tug-of-war over county and city projects.
Sonoma County in 2014 became the first local government to approve such agreements, on projects of $10 million or more. No qualifying projects have yet been built under that policy, and union officials acknowledge they hope to change that record by asking supervisors to lower the dollar threshold later this year.
In the meantime, they’re pressing their case with an SRJC board that’s undergone significant turnover in recent years. Newcomers backed by political groups including the North Bay Labor Council and Sonoma County Democratic Party have taken over four of the seven seats on the board since 2014, the same year voters approved Measure H, the $410 million SRJC bond proposal.
The trustees have the final say over how that money gets spent to upgrade facilities on the 99-year-old campus and its satellite facilities in Petaluma, Windsor, Forestville and Roseland.
Nonunion contractors say any requirement of union rules, benefits and oversight on building projects is unwarranted.
“The junior college has existed for decades and has had many successful projects without a PLA,” said Ken Kriescher, chief financial officer for Western Water Constructors and board member at the North Coast Builders Exchange, the Santa Rosa-based trade group.
“Open and fair competition has worked quite well for the community and taxpayers,” Kriescher said. “(PLAs) are a solution in search of problem that doesn’t exist.”
Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, which is spearheading the push for the union agreements, said they save money by limiting cost overruns and labor strife on large construction projects. Union supporters also see them as a way to promote local hiring, enhance job training and extend union benefits to nonunion workers.
“PLAs are not only proven to finish projects on time and under budget, there is also a social justice component,” Buckhorn said. “They include local training programs that create middle-class jobs.”
Tuesday’s 1:30 p.m. meeting will allot 20 minutes to each side for presentations, followed by a discussion period for trustees. The agenda does not include a specific PLA proposal, so no vote is planned.
The labor council would like to see project labor agreements required on any project over $2 million, Buckhorn said. The College of Marin has used such deals for years on its largest projects, and Buckhorn said union allies plan to urge the school’s trustees to lower their threshold to $2 million.