Los Angeles Tangled Up in Project Labor Agreements in 2010

1 January 28, 2011  State & Local Construction, Uncategorized

The web site for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau describes Los Angeles as a “union-friendly city” and declares that “Meeting professionals who plan union meetings often end up in Los Angeles, a city built by union labor. L.A.’s world-class buildings – Walt Disney Concert Hall, STAPLES Center, L.A. LIVE and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels – were all built by the city’s union labor.”

It is true that the most prominent buildings built in Los Angeles during the last ten years have been built by unionized workers – not because of merit, but only because construction union officials and their political friends pressured the owners to build them under project labor agreements (PLAs). Without a PLA, Los Angeles private developers can find their proposed projects held up with environmental complaints (“greenmail“) and political games.

And unions have also monopolized construction of numerous taxpayer-funded public works projects in Los Angeles, as union-backed elected and appointed officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles World Airports, the Port of Los Angeles, the City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California are requiring contractors to sign PLAs for various projects.

Construction unions in Los Angeles are desperately exploiting their special relationships with elected officials at local governments to try to guarantee work for their members. In 2010, the Los Angeles Building and Construction Trades Council aggressively pursued new PLAs at several local governments in Los Angeles County, with mixed results.


Los Angeles County
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas wants contractors to sign a PLA to work on the county’s Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center Replacement Project – Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center. After postponing consideration of the PLA for two meetings, the Board of Supervisors considered it at its October 19, 2010 meeting. Despite the presence of numerous union representatives at the meeting, Ridley-Thomas’ motion to negotiate a PLA failed due to lack of a second. A motion from Supervisor Don Knabe to direct staff to prepare a report on the potential issues and costs of a PLA passed 4-1. (Ridley-Thomas opposed it.)

County staff then produced a report dated November 9about PLAs. The report revealed that negotiating the PLA could delay the project for four months, and in addition, the county could spend $800,000 to negotiate and oversee the PLA. Instead of approving Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ motion to proceed with a PLA, the board asked staff for more information.

At the board’s December 14 meeting, the head of the Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council declared that the unions have never delayed a project to get a PLA and that PLAs have “self-monitoring systems” to ensure compliance. (That “system” worked so well at the Los Angeles Unified School District, didn’t it? See below.) In the end, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 to direct staff to negotiate a PLA in a way that doesn’t cost money but also to research the supposed benefits of various proposed PLA provisions. 


City of Los Angeles
Since 2004, the City of Los Angeles has considered imposing a PLA on all major city public works construction. The city’s Department of Public Works reported in April 2010 that since 2001 it had negotiated nine PLAs with unions that contractors were required to sign to work on 14 city projects.  On December 17, 2010, the Los Angeles City Council voted 10-0 (with five absences) to require contractors to sign a PLA for at least 100 specific projects worth a total of more than $2 billion under the Five-Year Public Infrastructure Program Series (PIPS).

City of Long Beach
On August 3, 2010, the Long Beach City Council voted 7-1 to authorize the City Manager to execute a PLA with the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council for Phase I Terminal Improvements at the Long Beach Airport for a period of three years, with the option to renew for one additional one-year period at the discretion of the City Manager.


Port of Los Angeles
For years, ABC has been aware that unions and Councilwoman Janice Hahn want the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners to force contractors to sign a PLA for future construction work at the Port of Los Angeles. On March 14, 2008 the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to request that the Port of Los Angeles develop and recommend a policy for approval by the Board of Harbor Commissioners that all future construction projects on Port property include PLAs. The Port has negotiated seven PLAs to date, most of those in the last four years.

On January 22, 2010, Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn referred a proposal to the city’s Trade, Commerce, and Tourism Committee that “the Harbor Department [of the Port of Los Angeles] be requested to report back to Council within 30 days with the status of a PLA Policy that would apply to all major capital improvement projects at the Port of Los Angeles.” Hahn indicated that “While port staff have been in the process of negotiating a Project Labor Agreement policy with the building trades’ labor unions, it is necessary that this process be expedited so that port construction projects are not awarded without a Project Labor Agreement in place…”

On June 17, 2010, the Board of Harbor Commissioners voted 3-0 (with two absences) to authorize negotiations for a department-wide PLA for all applicable City of Los Angeles Harbor Department (Harbor Department) public works-type projects.

One substantial Port project managed to be bid under fair and open competition in 2010. According to an article in the January 15, 2010 Cunningham Report, the Board of Harbor Commissioners decided not to use a PLA on improvements to Harry Bridges Boulevard because CalTrans had not yet developed a procedure for evaluating PLAs after the 2009 repeal of President Bush’s 2001 executive order prohibiting PLAs on federally-funded projects.  To complicate matters, the electricians and laborers unions were fighting over jurisdiction for certain parts of this project.

Port of Long Beach
The Harbor Commissioners of the Port of Long Beach unanimously voted on March 1, 2010 for a PLA to cover the first $150 million phase of the $750 million Middle Harbor Project. The Long Beach Chamber of Commerce and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) opposed the PLA. Just to make sure nothing went awry with their plot to give a construction monopoly to the unions, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster and four other city council members attended the meeting to speak in support of the PLA.


Los Angeles International Airport, Ontario International Airport, Other Airports
On December 14, 2010, Los Angeles World Airports announced that the Board of Airport Commissioners had accepted a 10-year extension of the PLA covering construction projects at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and projects yet to be determined at Ontario International Airport, Van Nuys Airport, and in Palmdale. The extension went into effect on January 1, 2011.


Metropolitan Transportation Authority of Los Angeles County: Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas led the board of directors of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority to vote 7-0 on September 20, 2010 to negotiate a PLA for Phase 2 of the Exposition Light Rail Transit Line, which will extend the Los Angeles County light rail system (operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of Los Angeles County) from Culver City to Santa Monica.


Los Angeles Unified School District
The ABC – California Cooperation Committee (ABC-CCC) tentatively identified nearly three dozen labor law violations committed by some of the 55 subcontractors on the construction of the $150 million Valley Region High School #5 in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Contractors on this project (two blocks from the ABC Los Angeles/Ventura Chapter office in San Fernando) were required to sign a PLA. A review of payroll records and other documents revealed violations that included the use of unlicensed contractors, underpayment of prevailing wages, and failure to appropriately supervise apprentices. On November 4, 2010, ABC-CCC released a press release announcing complaints it filed with the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) concerning the failure of 16 contractors to comply with labor law. (View previous posts on this report here.)

San Gabriel Unified School District
Los Angeles union tactics were on brazen display at the San Gabriel Unified School District in the City of San Gabriel (ten miles east of downtown Los Angeles) on November 10, 2010. In front of more than 100 irate local residents who packed the meeting room, the elected Governing Board for the school district voted 3-2 to require contractors to sign a PLA with unions for future taxpayer-funded construction work at the district.

The City of San Gabriel has a strong sense of community, and as anticipated in a November 9 San Gabriel Valley Tribune newspaper article, numerous citizens expressed their outrage at the meeting about how they were among the 70% of voters who in February 2008 supported Measure A, a $65 million bond funded by property taxes, but had no idea at the time that there was a secret union plot afoot to undermine the district’s ability to get the best quality construction at the best price. Numerous residents held signs calling for the recall of the three board members who supported the union agreement. (See previous posts on this here.)

Pasadena Unified School District
An article in the March 1, 2010, Pasadena Star-Newsindicated that special interests wanted a PLA for future construction at the Pasadena Unified School District funded by Measure TT, a $350 million bond approved by 75% of voters in November 2008. On April 7, the head of the Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council showed up at a Facilities and Capital Projects Subcommittee meeting at the Pasadena Unified School District to make a formal presentation and lock in his plan for a PLA on future school construction at the district funded by bond Measure TT. To his dismay, representatives of ABC and the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction were there to speak during public comment PLAs. District staff also presented an unbiased PowerPoint on PLAs. A resolution to PLA negotiations has not come before the full school board.


Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District
On March 2, 2010, the board of directors for the El Monte-based Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District voted 4-1 to require contractors to sign a PLA for future capital projects. One board member recognized that PLAs raise costs of construction for ratepayers and voted no.

Palmdale Water District
Ending this report on a positive note that may portend the future of PLAs in the Los Angeles region, the Palmdale Water Districtvoted on October 27, 2010 to become the seventh local government in California and the first water district in California where fair and open competition for ratepayers is guaranteed and PLAs are prohibited. On a 3-2 vote, the elected board of directors adopted a resolution to amend the rules and regulations of the Palmdale Water District to prohibit the requirement of PLAs and other anti-competitive measures. This PLA was particularly noteworthy because the Palmdale Water District had been targeted by the Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council in late 2006 and early 2007 to require its contractors to sign PLAs for future construction projects.
(Learn more about this victory for taxpayers here.)

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