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The fight over the PLA is related to the $163 billion “5 Big Moves,” the county’s push to build a stronger regional transportation network
The fight over the PLA is related to the $163 billion “5 Big Moves,” the county’s push to build a stronger regional transportation network. Photo via Facebook/SANDAG
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SANDAG approves project labor agreement during contentious meeting

REGION — The second-round battle over billions of dollars in construction projects was a spirited affair that resulted in San Diego Association of Governments approving project labor agreement negotiations with the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council during its July 21 meeting.

As part of its Workforce Development Program, the SANDAG board of directors told staff to begin discussions with the Building and Construction Trades Council to execute a Community Benefits Agreement, otherwise known as a project labor agreement (PLA), which is seen as union-friendly contracts.

The fight over the labor agreement is connected to the $163 billion “5 Big Moves,” the county’s push to improve the region’s transportation network by implementing five key elements: Complete Corridors (multimodal roads), Transit Leap (fast and flexible transit), Mobility Hubs (connection points), Flexible Fleets (first- and last-mile options) and Next Operating System (enabling technology).

The board’s voted 10-8 in favor of the labor agreement after striking down a substitute motion from Poway Mayor Steve Vaus. Instead, the board moved forward with National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis’ motion to only negotiate with the Building and Construction Trades Council.

Vaus’ motion was to ban workers from paying fees to a third party and include all apprenticeship programs in the agreement but his motion lost a vote largely along party lines, with the exception of Del Mar Mayor Terry Gaasterland supporting Vaus’ motion.

The debate centered on inclusion, equity and equality for all contractors, subcontractors and workers with the unions and their Democrat supporters saying the community benefits agreement will offer inclusion for marginalized workers and better financial opportunities.

Opponents slammed the community benefits agreement as a gift to unions and said the negotiations can’t be inclusive if the unions are the only ones allowed to negotiate the terms of the deal.

Notably, Abdur-Rahim Hameed, chief executive officer and national president of the National Black Contractors Association (NBCA), called out the board for exclusion and discrimination.

The association was given an exception by the board during SANDAG’s April 9 meeting, but it now appears the NBCA, along with other black, indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC), women and veteran-owned contractors and subcontractors, will be left out.

“I was highly disappointed that they cannot comprehend equity and inclusion,” Hameed said, noting only the Republican mayors lobbied for Vaus’ motion. “It’s speaking both sides out of their mouth. They’re voting under duress because if they were to talk about inclusion … they are concerned about their political careers. Todd Gloria wants to be governor one day and he thinks he’ll need a war chest from the unions, so he has no moral judgment.”

In the staff report, SANDAG staff said there is a “critical shortage of the labor force,” and a community benefits agreement can fill the gap with underrepresented individuals. The report said the goal is to advance equity for all and allow all qualified contractors and subcontractors to bid and receive project awards.

The SANDAG Workforce Opportunities for Rising Careers (WORC) program focuses on creating career pathways and a union apprenticeship readiness program. The staff report said the WORC program focuses on increasing opportunities for ex-felons, single parents, people of color and women, to name a few, which was echoed by the trades council.

But Hameed said that non-union organizations offer the same programs, skills training and licensing opportunities.

Project labor agreements, meanwhile, have long been a source of contention between Democrats and Republicans, along with unions and non-union contractors.

Unions have poured in millions of dollars in campaign cash into local Democrat candidates and the county party’s coffers. Republicans and non-union shops say PLAs not only discriminate against BIPOC, women and veterans but also incur significant cost increases to individual projects, sometimes as high as 20%.

Democrats on SANDAG’s board said PLAs provide a skilled workforce, labor peace and pathways for those to reach the middle class.

“The (San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council) wants a (Community Benefits Agreement), but you need one,” said Tom Lemmon, chairman of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council. “You need one to fulfill your inclusion and equity agreement. This will provide opportunities for small business, BIPOC, women, veterans (and others).

“Union and non-union contractors will both continue to bid. There is no requirement to join a union.”

Both union and non-union organizations offer state and federally approved apprenticeship programs. According to Hameed, under PLAs unions charge non-union works fees for benefits they will never vest. He said it amounts to wage theft and should not be allowed.

“The way they are going to force people to join unions and force them to pay membership dues is akin to slavery,” Hameed said. “Some people don’t want to be in the unions, but in order to eat with $163 billion, that’s going to be the only thing for you to do.

“They (unions) don’t want us to exist, and we have a right to exist,” Hameed added. “It seems no one cares about fairness and equity. It’s a cliché. We’re going to have to continue to educate the BIPOC community on what fairness and inclusion means.”

County Supervisor Joel Anderson said the project labor agreement will leave out half of his District’s workforce and if approved, will put up roadblocks for two SANDAG proposed transportation tax ballot measures in 2022.

“If you give one an advantage, no one will vote,” Anderson said of the tax measures. “If it is not inclusive, this project will truly be dead. We won’t get the financing.”

John Kirk, general counsel for SANDAG, said project labor agreements can restrict certain types of apprenticeship programs. However, the board said it was made clear to staff that all apprenticeship programs should be included during negotiations with the Building and Construction Trades Council.

Hameed, though, said the state and national trades councils have mandates to exclude all parallel or competing non-union apprenticeship programs and he is doubtful whether his association or others will be included.

Supporters of the PLA, including San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and Sotel-Solis, said the agreement should not tie staff’s hands and will remain true to the body’s recently approved equity and inclusion statement.

Gloria said there is a difference between equity and equality and those opposing should respect those differences.

“We want to deliver big projects to our region,” Gloria said. “This plan and the projects will benefit all … but it won’t be possible if we don’t have the talent. We are pumping billions of dollars into the local economy. Agreements of this kind are common across the country and in California.”