The November 27 Bakersfield Californian newspaper includes an opinion piece written by Bob Balgenorth, head of the California State Building and Construction Trades Council, promoting construction of the state’s proposed $98.5 billion High-Speed Rail as a better alternative to construction of freeways and airports: Bob Balgenorth: Airport, highway expansion impractical; HSR better option. He also had an opinion piece in the November 12 Merced Sun-Star: Bob Balgenorth: California can’t afford not to build high-speed rail system.
What would lead Mr. Balgenorth to make such a bold public assertion? Is it possible he has greater wisdom and foresight than the average Californian about getting a speedier ride from Madera to Corcoran after 2017?
Associated Builders and Contractors of California has long tracked reports and rumors that the California State Building and Construction Trades Council and its affiliated construction trade unions want contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with unions in order to work on the California High-Speed Rail Project. Either the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s Board of Directors would approve a resolution requiring its contractors to sign a PLA, or political pressure could be exerted behind the scenes to convince the prime contractor to negotiate and sign a PLA (without any explicit direction from the High-Speed Rail Authority). The threat was only heightened in March 2011, when the State Senate Rules Committee appointed Bob Balgenorth to a vacant seat on the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors. (Operating Engineers Local No. 3 business manager Russ Burns also serves on the nine-member board.)
Construction union meddling with the California High-Speed Rail project began as far back as February 2003, when construction unions pushed for the enactment of Assembly Bill 1506, a bill that required the High-Speed Rail Authority to operate a “Labor Compliance Program.” As reported in the October 1, 2003 Merced Sun-Star, then-State Senator Jeff Denham asked soon-to-be-recalled Governor Gray Davis to veto the bill because it could lead to a Project Labor Agreement. Rumors continued to circulate in the next six years about the unions targeting the project for a PLA.
Then, in the November 2008 election, Californians took a few moments from voting for Barack Obama to also vote for Proposition 1A, which authorized $10 billion in bonds to fund what was then estimated as a $40 billion project. Notice that support for Barack Obama as a candidate was much greater than support for $10 billion to the High-Speed Rail.
2008 Election Results in California: Presidential and High Speed Rail Bond Measure
|Number of Votes||Percentage|
|Proposition 1A – YES||6,680,485||52.7|
|Proposition 1A – NO||6,015,944||47.3|
The primary campaign committee to support this ballot measure was “Californians For High Speed Trains – Yes On Proposition 1 – A Coalition of Taxpayer, Business, Environmental And Labor Groups and People From Across California Tired of Being Stuck In Traffic,” which spent $2,544,821.02. Contributions included $76,000 from “Members’ Voice of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California,” $32,000 from a Labor-Management Cooperation Committee called “California Alliance for Jobs – Rebuild California Committee,” and other significant contributions from several individual construction trade unions and unionized construction contractors. California Alliance for Jobs – Rebuild California Committee also loaned the campaign $100,000. (Note: Associated Builders and Contractors of California did not take a position on Proposition 1A, after considering the cost of the project and the inevitable threat of a PLA.)
Then the political maneuvering began to get the project underway and give unions a monopoly on construction of the project with a Project Labor Agreement.
In January 2010, several speakers claiming to represent the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) spoke during the High-Speed Rail Authority public scoping meetings in support of a PLA. Senate Bill 964 created a High-Speed Rail Advisory Committee for Workforce Development and mandated representation from “labor organizations” on the committee without giving any recognition to organizations and apprenticeship programs not affiliated with unions.
At its December 2, 2010 meeting, the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors voted to spend $4.15 billion on construction of 65 miles of track stretching from Madera to Corcoran. It included the construction of two new stations – one in downtown Fresno and the other east of Hanford. On July 6, 2011, a draft California High-Speed Authority Design Build Program Plan prepared by the program management firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff referred to a PLA. A September 21 opinion piece in the Bakersfield Californian from the executive secretary of the Building & Construction Trades Council for Kern, Inyo and Mono counties promoted the rail project: John Spaulding: We must embrace the jobs at Kern County’s doorstep.
On November 15, 2011, the California High-Speed Rail Authority issued a Request for Qualifications for a design-build entity to build the first phase of the project, a 26 to 33 mile section from Fresno extending north. The bid specifications include Davis-Bacon Act and state prevailing wage requirements, but do not mention a Project Labor Agreement. A November 17 California Assembly Budget Committee field hearing in Palo Alto included numerous construction union officials speaking as leading supporters for the project.
Much of the rail work itself would likely be performed by unionized heavy construction engineering firms. For example, Kiewit-Granite High-Speed Ventures is a potential prime contractor for the project. It is a joint venture of Kiewit Pacific and Granite Construction. However, Merit Shop contractors could build rail station infrastructure and maintenance facilities. A Project Labor Agreement would discourage the numerous and dominant local Merit Shop contractors in the Central Valley from bidding on this work, thus cutting local competition, eliminating job opportunities for local residents, and unnecessarily increasing costs for the benefit of a special interest group.
UPDATE: Out of the Closet! The California State Building and Construction Trades Council has revealed its intent to require construction contractors on the California High Speed Rail project to sign a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with unions. Assemblyman Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles) amended Assembly Bill 1254 on January 4, 2012 to create a new bill requiring contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement for a minimum of 25% of contracts awarded by the California High Speed Rail Authority.