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.
Chong couldn’t say which project would be covered by the first agreement because funding questions make the timing tricky to predict. While he has floated the idea of the STEM building potentially being the first project, Chong said that is not certain because it’s unclear when that proposal will receive its estimated $34 million in matching bond funds.
Other candidates are the $21 million renovation of one of the oldest buildings on campus, the 78-year-old Burbank Auditorium, or the $40 million in upgrades to various athletic facilities, including the 400-seat, 82-year-old Tauzer Gymnasium on the main campus.
Whatever the project, critics contend that project labor deals may sound good, but are bad public policy.
“PLAs are a mackerel in the moonlight. They look shiny from a distance, but the closer you get the more they stink,” said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a trade group representing 750 mostly nonunion contractors.
Woods and others argue that the deals, while not technically requiring unionized workers on a project, effectively discriminate against nonunion contractors, who are forced to abide by union rules, get many of their workers from union halls instead of their own ranks and submit to project oversight by the union.
For workers who aren’t unionized, the contractors still have to pay into union health care and pension funds, which workers may never benefit from, Woods said.
This “double payment of benefits” is one of the key drivers of the costs that Woods and others contend are higher under the labor deals.
At the study session in March, Roger Nelson, president of Petaluma-based Midstate Construction, told trustees PLA-related costs would have added up to $2.5 million to the $35 million Lawrence A. Bertolini Student Center, which his company completed in 2009.
Longtime trustee Rick Call, who was ousted in 2016, said the board had previously been approached by union groups after voters in 2002 passed the last major bond measure, raising $251 million for upgrades to the college’s Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses.
“We just couldn’t figure why anybody would even use a PLA,” Call said.
Buckhorn recalls that chilly reception vividly, but said over time research has proven the value of project labor deals while the rhetoric from the opponents has fallen flat.
“At this point, we have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that PLAs work,” Buckhorn said. “The Chicken Little Syndrome has been exposed on these guys.”
Buckhorn notes that the 800 million Graton Resort and Casino project outside Rohnert Park was completed on budget and on a fast-track timeline using a PLA, and that 75 percent of the workers were local.
He also pointed to a UC Berkeley study focused on community colleges in the state, including Marin Community College. That piece of the study analyzed seven buildings constructed between 2008 and 2015 using funds from a $250 million modernization bond measure.
Three of the buildings had PLAs covering them, four did not. The study showed no significant difference in the competitiveness of the bidding, total project costs or time to completion among the seven projects.
A related statistical analysis of 263 building projects at community colleges around the state showed similar results, according to the study funded the Construction Trades Council.
But other studies suggest PLAs drive up costs.
A 2011 study of 501 school projects in the state between 1995 and 2009 found that projects with PLAs experienced costs 13 percent to 15 percent higher than those without. The study was performed by the National University System Institute for Policy Research of San Diego and funded by the Association of Builders and Contractors Inc., which advocates for nonunion contractors.
Each side takes issue with the methodologies and biases of these and other studies on the subject, making consensus tricky.
“Truth is a little elusive,” Fishman said, acknowledging the difficulty of assessing the validity of competing studies.
Fishman said she’s done her homework, including speaking to numerous trustees at other colleges, and feels comfortable moving forward Tuesday.
“I don’t think the sky is falling,” Fishman said. “It’s a project-delivery tool and a risk-management tool. I think it’s something we should look at.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.