Gaming the System: California’s Environmental Laws Are Pivotal to Unions Winning Project Labor Agreements from Private Developers
In California, Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) are the primary tactic used by construction unions to gain market share in the industry. And PLAs are not confined to public works projects. Particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sacramento area, the City of Los Angeles, and the San Diego area, private developers have been signing PLAs for large industrial, commercial, and residential projects, despite the cost increases inherent in PLAs. PLAs have been especially prevalent for the construction and maintenance of power plants, which have to receive licenses from the California Energy Commission.
Virtually all of these “private PLAs” were signed by developers in response to threats or legal actions in corporate campaigns funded by construction unions to delay permits or construction using environmental legal objections, or “greenmail.” The leverage given to unions through their abuse of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has single-handedly allowed construction unions to maintain a strong presence in California’s private construction market.
Few people in California realize that the state’s rigorous environmental laws are the basis for the campaigns of construction unions to monopolize private projects. For example, in the Sacramento area, nothing substantial is being proposed or built without the interference of union-funded environmental lawsuits. In recent years, the law firm of William D. Kopper used legal action or threats of legal action to win PLAs for the West Roseville Specific Plan developments and the Roseville Galleria expansion. This law firm is now challenging approval of the following proposed developments: the huge Railyards development in downtown Sacramento, the Drexel University West Coast campus and related development in Placer County, the Placer Vineyards Specific Plan in Placer County, and the Greenbriar development in Sacramento. The firm was also involved in objections to the Yuba Highlands development in Yuba County and the Yuba County Speedway.
Another notorious greenmail law firm, Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo, has recently filed a challenge to the proposed Delta Shores project in Sacramento. This same firm, working for California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), threatened to intervene and slow down the permitting process for the Roseville Energy Park power plant, thus compelling the solidly pro-business Roseville City Council on a 4-1 vote to approve a PLA.
When the economy was booming in California, developers rarely admitted publically that unions were extorting them through the environmental process. Recently, the trend has been for developers to expose what the unions are actually seeking to win through their environmental lawsuits.
One recent high-profile case of greenmail occurred in Chula Vista (near San Diego), where Gaylord Entertainment proposed a hotel and convention center. The unions’ demand for a PLA in exchange for their satisfaction with the environmental impact of the project received significant political and media attention for almost two years, until Gaylord withdrew the proposal in November 2008.
In the case of Delta Shores in Sacramento, the developer has been open from the beginning about the hidden motivation behind the lawsuit. The April 12 Sacramento Bee included a column by Marcos Breton – Delta Shores Lawsuit about Greenbacks, Not Greenbelts – about the unions’ alleged concern for the environment:
“But maybe they truly are concerned about furry owls. Maybe they hug trees on the coffee breaks. And maybe a Swainson’s hawk will fly out of my nose.”
FACT: Construction unions employ a variety of sophisticated tactics, including the abuse of environmental laws via greenmail, to obtain union-only PLAs.