After twelve years of fighting Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) at local governments in California, I’ve developed a set of axioms based on my experiences. One of these axioms is that PLAs are about politics, not logic. After all, what kind of logic would lead an elected official to establish work conditions that would discourage perfectly qualified, experienced local contractors from bidding on a taxpayer-funded job?
PLAs are about giving politically powerful unions a present, courtesy of clueless or apathetic taxpayers living in urban areas where there is a lack of community cohesion and unions fill the resulting political vacuum. A corollary to this axiom is that behind every push for a PLA is an elected official dreaming of higher office.
Local elected officials often place items on their board agendas to require contractors to sign a PLA right around the time they announce their plans to run for state legislature or county board of supervisors. That’s because in California a candidate usually needs financial and grassroots support from construction unions in order to win a Democratic Party primary or to defeat other Democrats in non-partisan local races.
In the California State Legislature, where districts are gerrymandered to preserve the status quo in party status, a win in the Democrat primary insures a general election victory in almost two-thirds of the districts. In county supervisor races in major metropolitan areas of the state, unions have great influence because they are often the top campaign contributors in competitive races.
Sometimes it’s amusing seeing candidates for higher office scrambling over each other trying to prove to the construction unions that they are the most committed to PLAs. In 2005, a board member of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District (based in Concord, California) was running for a seat on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and proposed a PLA for future school construction. Not to be outdone, his chief opponent – a city council member – actually showed up at the school board meeting where the PLA was discussed to submit a letter and speak in support of the PLA. It was apparently irrelevant that the city council had no authority over the affairs of the school district.
This pattern is fairly routine. Here are a few of the many examples:
In 2008, an elected member of the board of directors of Foothill-DeAnza Community College District in San José led the charge for a PLA, which was ultimately approved on a 3-2 vote after long controversy. That occurred as the community college board member was gearing up for a contentious primary for a state legislative seat in a solidly Democratic district. (He has since been appointed to a position in the Obama Administration.)
A member of the Solano County Board of Supervisors appointed in 2003 by about-to-be-recalled Governor Gray Davis pushed for a PLA on most county construction in early 2004. Obviously she wanted union support to maintain her politically competitive seat. In the end her support for PLAs was self-defeating: her anti-PLA opponent made the PLA into one of the issues and defeated her.
In one strange case in 2003, the unelected superintendent of a school district in San José was the chief proponent of a PLA for future school construction. I was mystified by this. Public agency managers are usually opposed to PLAs because the higher costs and reduced bid competition resulting from PLAs have the potential to damage their professional reputations. But soon afterwards, the superintendent announced his candidacy for state legislature. And today he sits in the State Assembly voting for union-backed legislation and accelerating the state’s slide into fiscal oblivion.
The latest example of “behind every push for a PLA is an elected official dreaming of higher office” is at the San Diego Unified School District, where board president Shelia Jackson has been pushing since January for a PLA on certain projects funded by the $2.1 billion Proposition S. On July 16, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Ms. Jackson is running against an incumbent Republican for a seat on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. See the story here:
The best solution I can suggest to this problem is to highlight to the news media and local business, community, and political leaders that PLAs are primarily a self-interested gift to politically powerful construction unions. Especially in the cases of K-12 school districts, people resent how board members use their positions as tools to advance their political careers.
To prove beyond a doubt that PLAs are a test for union political support, obtain a copy of the regional building trades council’s candidate questionnaire, in which candidates often eagerly pledge to support PLAs despite knowing very little about them. Enterprising reporters looking for the political angle on a PLA story should ask elected officials pushing PLAs if they have indicated their support for PLAs on union candidate questionnaires.
For the rare cases in California in which an anti-PLA candidate was a credible and serious opponent to a candidate supporting PLAs, mailers and other political advertising have exposed the differences between the candidates. Most voters reject the concept of PLAs once they understand what PLAs contain and what they do. ABC and other groups that oppose PLAs have highlighted the PLA antics of candidates for state legislature, the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and the Santa Ana Unified School District, and in those cases construction union backing failed to propel those candidates to victory.
UPDATE: This axiom doesn’t just apply to PLAs in California. Politicans all over America push union demands as they dream of seeking higher office. A textbook example recently surfaced in Louisville, KY.
In May, Mayor Jerry Abramson (D) vetoed a labor standards ordinance requiring city contractors to pay an articifial prevailing wage to workers on projects receving more than $500,000 of city funds. Additionally, the ordinance contained apprenticeship requirements and other provisions designed to prevent non-union contractors from working on city-funded projects. This was only the third veto issued by a Louisville mayor in 20 years. Mayor Abramson clearly had Louisville taxpayers in mind when he issued the veto, as prevailing wage requirements can increase construction costs by as much as 38 percent.
Two months later, in an interesting reversal, a new version of the labor standards ordinance was introduced with Mayor Abramson’s support. The newly introduced ordinance still includes prevailing wage requirements, but only for projects costing over $25 million with 25 percent of the funding coming from the city. While this latest version of the ordinance is watered down compared to what the Metro Council passed in May, it will still unnecessarily increase construction costs on city-funded work.
Why did Mayor Abramson change his positions on the ordinance? Perhaps it is because he dreamed of being selected to run for Lt. Governor by incumbent Governor Steve Beshear?
It appears the axiom was proven correct once again.