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SANDAG, a countywide agency governed by elected municipal officials, oversees transportation planning and serves as a kind of gatekeeper for federal funding. Courtesy photo
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SANDAG adopts pro-union resolution in contentious vote

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve updated this original version of this article to reflect the information we received subsequently from the California Department of Industrial Relations.

REGION — In what some see as ideological bulldozing, SANDAG’s governing board narrowly passed a resolution on April 9 favoring unions in big-dollar regional infrastructure planning, making one exception for non-union African American contractors.

SANDAG, a countywide agency governed by elected municipal officials, oversees transportation planning and serves as a kind of gatekeeper for federal funding. It’s currently in the process of prioritizing major transportation investments, recently estimated at $163 billion over 30 years.

Last Friday’s resolution instructs SANDAG staff, when drafting a related planning document for the board’s later deliberation, to “consider … local workforce and careers in construction for our region through Project Labor Agreements,” or PLAs. These are collective bargaining agreements between a trade union and contractor for a given construction project.

The resolution also emphasizes the role of “joint labor-management” apprenticeship programs — which are union-affiliated — to “promote labor stability for a diverse local workforce.” Apprenticeship programs train junior tradespeople, such as carpenters and plumbers, to reach the “journeyman” level of professional certification.

Non-union apprenticeship programs also exist. These are administered by contractors who hire and train their own workers, but not under a collective bargaining agreement with a union.

For comparison, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), a union, and the Western Electrical Contractors Association (WECA) offer similar apprenticeship programs. SANDAG’s verbiage would include only the former’s, according to WECA’s Richard Markuson.

Although there can be some crossover between the two kinds of programs.

Overall, the state has 1,324 apprenticeship programs run by 534 sponsors, of which 225 include a union component and 309 do not, the California Department of Industrial Relations told The Coast News.

These union-related clauses represent only non-binding guidance to SANDAG staff; the board will vote on labor agreements for specific construction projects as they take shape. Nevertheless, they dragged contentious deliberations past midnight and prompted certain representatives to leave the meeting early.

For their part, PLAs have long been a lightning rod.

A coalition of organizations, including several local unions, wrote to the SANDAG in favor, saying PLAs help ensure “transportation projects are creating high-quality careers in construction in our region.”

Others say PLAs are unfair because they exclude certain firms and workers from major public works projects, among other reasons.

“With all this infrastructure coming in, we really can’t afford to cut off any qualified contractor,” said the Association of General Contractors’ Eddie Sprecco.

Voters approved an initiative in 2010 prohibiting the county government from requiring PLAs for county construction projects, by a 52-point margin. They approved a similar initiative for the City of San Diego in 2012, by a 16-point margin.

Relatedly, while the resolution’s original language specified only union-affiliated apprenticeship programs, some public speakers lamented the consequent exclusion of the non-union National Black Contractors Association’s program. Alejandra Sotelo-Solis and Todd Gloria — mayors of National City and San Diego, respectively — subsequently moved to include the Black Contractors Association as an explicit exception.

“You can’t start off a conversation with exclusion, and then tout inclusion,” said Abdur-Rahim Hameed, the Black contractors’ president. The resolution cites “concerns for equity,” and the SANDAG board in February adopted a commitment to “uphold equity and inclusion” and “eliminate disparities” in all aspects of the agency’s activities.

La Mesa City Councilman Jack Shu, who authored the resolution, offered to revise his language to include union and non-union programs.

“Whenever you start specifying one particular organization, then you end up excluding the ones that you didn’t mention,” he said.

Sotelo-Solis declined to substitute Shu’s more general language, confirming her motion to add the Black Contractors Association as an exception to the otherwise union-only paradigm.

A first vote on the resolution, with Sotelo-Solis’ modification, failed to pass in a 9-to-9 tie. Shu subsequently invoked a SANDAG procedure whereby representatives’ votes no longer count equally, but rather are weighted by population.

Several representatives then dropped out of the virtual meeting, including Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, Oceanside City Councilman Christ Rodriguez, San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, and Vista Mayor Judy Ritter. The board was left with a bare quorum, which approved the modified resolution 9-to-1.

The sole no-vote in the second round came from Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland, who, only recently appointed to the SANDAG board, said she didn’t know she had the option to ditch the proceedings. Had she done so, the remaining members would’ve been left without a quorum.

“Overall, I supported the resolution,” but was concerned about making “‘on the fly’ edits,” Gaasterland said.