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PLA debate centers on VUSD projects for school bond

VISTA — A divisive issue was atop a recent Vista Unified School District’s Board of Education agenda regarding a project labor agreement (PLA) and Measure LL, the $247 million school bond approved by voters in 2018.

The board heard presentations from the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council (pro-union) and Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction (non-union) representatives during its Aug. 15 meeting. The board is scheduled to vote on a PLA at its Sept. 12 meeting.

The bond, known as Measure LL, is already underway and the PLA would be considered for future projects.

Also, this was the third time the district board held a public workshop regarding PLAs, according to Carol Kim, political director for the Building and Construction Trades Council.

“Project labor agreements are one of the best policy mechanisms to policy makers and elected officials to make sure local hire is implemented,” Kim said. “Most folks want their tax dollars to stay in their local economy and they want to be able to hire and provide quality jobs for local people. They also want a good, strong, quality product.”

About two dozen labor workers from electricians to carpenters were in attendance in support of the PLA, while eight spoke to the board of how it would help the district and the city. They noted how PLAs source local jobs, provide career pathways and ensure prevailing wages and benefits.

Kim said unions bring high-quality workers, meet budgets and timelines. She highlighted numerous PLAs where unions came in under budget and on time such as San Diego County Courthouse, which was $3 million under projections.

In addition, a PLA in Riverside netted local businesses $83 million in revenue from union workers who bought supplies, lunches and other daily necessities.

Kim also touted successes in Chula Vista, San Diego County Water Authority and the Sweetwater Union High School District. The big one, though, was a $27 billion contract for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Additionally, she said, with PLAs workers are guaranteed prevailing wages, overtime and benefits, noting some non-union contractors have been cited for not paying overtime.

She also disputed claims of discrimination of hiring non-union workers and boxing out apprentices. She said PLAs prevent contractors from misclassification of workers, thus ensuring proper wages and benefits.

“It sets up front from the get-go the standards and expectations,” Kim said. “Everybody knows, is made aware of them and are actually enforced. We think it’s a really great tool.”

Eric Christen, executive director for the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said PLAs have been soundly rejected across the county and state due to many issues. He said PLAs inflate costs, intentionally box out non-union apprentices and force non-union workers to pay fringe benefit costs to unions, among other issues.

He was also disappointed with the lack of engagement from the board and a lack of inquiries. Additionally, he has concerns with Vista Unified board member Cipriano Vargas, who works as a political organizer for Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a fact Christen calls concerning and potentially unfair.

“They’re asking staff and contractors to radically transform the way they go about their standard operating procedure when they go about their bids,” Christen added. “There was no explanation as to why this solution was needed for a non-existent problem. That points to me, that there are members on the board that are favorable to PLAs that they just have their minds made up.”

Brad Barnum, executive vice president for Associated General Contractors of America, said due to those cost increase, phase five of Measure LL would be cut from the project list.

Another issue the two railed against is how PLAs intentionally target against using non-union apprentices, thus making it unlikely non-union contractors would even bid on a project. Christen also pointed to how San Diego voters rejected in 2012 a citywide measure to require PLAs. County voters also rejected a PLA measure in the 2010 election.

“All PLAs explicitly exclude non-union apprenticeships,” Christen said. “I’ve read all 347 that have ever been considered in the state of California in the last 20 years. Not one of them has excluding any of the key four provisions that discriminate against non-union contractors, workers and apprentices.

Sarah Polito, an attorney for the district, said the potential for a 25% increase in costs poses a threat to completing all five phases and does not guarantee local hires, rather sets it as a goal. However, she said PLAs guarantee work, prevent strikes and set wages.

Kim, though, disagreed with the 25% and $59 million assessments, saying project costs are already set by engineers, architects and other professionals.