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A split Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rejected a disputed policy that would have required union rules, benefits and oversight for all workers on large county construction projects.

Nearly five hours into a hearing before a standing-room-only crowd, the board was opposed, 3-2, to the blanket policy and let it die. It would have backed a pre-hire collective bargaining deal, called a project labor agreement, on all county construction projects of at least $25 million.

Without support for that move, supervisors quickly pivoted Tuesday and unanimously backed a proposal to pursue a narrower deal that would apply the same sort of agreement to just one project, the planned $54 million expansion of runways at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

The compromise was a victory of sorts for the non-union contractors and trade groups that opposed the wider policy, concerned it would edge them out of competition for projects or force them to act as union employers.

Business and taxpayer groups also opposed the policy, saying it lacked details and would add additional compensation and negotiation costs to county construction projects.

"Entering into an agreement that's not yet defined is not a good business practice," said Sean Beehler, vice chairman of the advocacy council for the Santa Rosa Chamber Commerce.

Supervisors Valerie Brown, David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo opposed the blanket policy, saying it could disadvantage some non-union workers and overly complicate bidding on county projects.

"Convince me what I'm getting for the additional cost," said Rabbitt. "Or convince me there is no additional cost. No one has convinced me of anything."

The outcome was a setback for trade union members, who touted the policy as a way to promote local hiring, enhance job training and extend union benefits to non-union workers on county jobs.

It was also a political blow to Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, who had advocated strongly for the blanket policy, tying it to county economic development efforts and a broader campaign to protect the middle class.

Zane, who was backed by unions in her June re-election, said she was "disappointed" with the outcome, but she echoed union leaders who said they might still achieve their goals through a project-by-project approach, starting with the airport.

The runway expansion was the only planned county construction project that would have triggered the policy, they noted.

"We thought it would be easier to have a general policy and then come back on specific projects," said Jack Buckhorn, president of the North Bay Labor Council, a coalition of private and public sector labor groups. Taking the opposite approach, he said, wouldn't change anything "in the big picture."

Supervisor Mike McGuire joined Zane in supporting the blanket policy.

The board was heavily lobbied by both sides in recent months.

At Tuesday's hearing, supporters of organized labor donned T-shirts carrying their message and rallied outside the board chambers.

Across the street, opponents had parked a large electronic road sign that flashed their message, directed at Zane in the form of a question: "Why?"

The chairwoman took notice. "It's not every day I get to come to work and see my name in lights outside my office window," she said.

The board wrestled at length with how to measure the supposed benefits of a policy favoring project labor agreements against the risks.

Agreements are not uncommon for large public works projects on a case-by-case basis, but only three California counties have blanket policies.

Supporters noted it would not bar non-union contractors or eliminate the standard selection of the lowest responsible bid, while offering the county protections against labor disputes. Other upsides, they said, were the uniform benefits for workers — prevailing wages already are required on all county jobs — and enhanced training programs.

"It's the best thing you can do to support local workers," said John Galeotti, a representative for Operating Engineers Local 3.

But 80 percent or more of local construction workers are non-union, opponents said, and those workers, if their firms do bid for projects covered by such agreements, often run into headaches with union health care plans or pension benefits they help pay for but never receive.

"That doesn't work very well for me," said Chad Lowenburg, a Cotati construction worker opposed to the policy.

Supervisors said such details, including the mandated pension plan participation, need further discussion.

"There has to be an agreement on that before we move full bore on this thing," said Brown.

Acknowledging their deep divide on some issues, representatives from both sides nevertheless said they would work on reaching consensus over the airport agreement.

"I think supervisors did the right thing tonight," said Keith Woods, CEO of the Santa Rosa-based North Coast Builders Exchange.

"Why adopt a blanket policy on a project you don't even know the details on?" Woods said. "We're going to go to the table to see if we can work something out."

The board is set to revisit the issue in about two months.

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com)

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