Bidding on Santa Barbara County’s construction projects could be governed by a community workforce agreement if a proposed ordinance and an accompanying agreement “template” is eventually approved by the Board of Supervisors.
At the board’s meeting Tuesday in Santa Maria, public comments ran nearly 3-to-1 against having a community workforce agreement, with unions mainly favoring the idea and nonunion contractors generally opposing it.
The board itself was split on the proposal brought forward by 1st District Supervisor Das Williams and 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who were joined by 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart in a 3-2 vote directing staff to draft an ordinance governing the use of community workforce agreements.
The vote also directed the General Services and Public Works departments to negotiate with the Tri-County Building and Construction Trades Council to develop a template for such agreements on individual future projects.
Darcel Elliott, chief of staff for Williams, explained a legally binding community workforce agreement negotiated between a public agency and construction trade unions would provide a stable, skilled workforce and guarantee uniform wages, benefits and work rules across multiple crafts on publicly funded projects.
She said it would include hiring provisions to get low-income workers into construction careers through established apprenticeship programs, preferential hiring of women and minorities and a “Helmets-to-Hardhats” program for hiring veterans.
Adopting a community workforce agreement would allow “more time and space” for labor negotiations and save staff time and resources by not negotiating a separate labor agreement from scratch for each new project.
The board discussion revealed something of the supervisors’ philosophical divide.
Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam, who cast one of the “no” votes, asked a series of pointed questions of Public Works Director Scott McGolpin and General Services Director Janette Pell.
Adam wanted to know if there was a difference between union and nonunion wages (no), if there is sufficient local labor to handle a $10 million project (yes), if there had ever been a project delay due to a shortage of labor or a strike (no), if the county had experienced labor strife (no), if the county used both union and nonunion crews (yes) and what percentage of the workforce on county projects is local (unknown).
“The answers were clear,” Adam said. “There is no need for this.”
Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chairman Steve Lavagnino, who also voted “no,” said he was curious why the two supervisors had brought forth the proposal, noting the last workforce agreement they considered was for a specific large and complicated project.
“I came prepared to support a pilot program,” Lavagnino said, indicating he was not prepared to support such a sweeping countywide ordinance. “This is very difficult because there are people I respect and trust on both sides (of the issue).”
Public opposition came mostly from local nonunion businesses, but some came from a larger association.
“We’ve negotiated agreements for 100 years,” said Kim Hudson, Bay Area regional government affairs manager for Associated General Contractors, who urged supervisors to oppose the measure. “To be successful, agreements should be negotiated between contractors and labor without outside influence.”
Vince Lopez, president of V. Lopez Jr. & Sons, a nonunion local business, said such an agreement would take away his ability to bid on county projects.
“If you do sign the agreement, you’ll have a lot less bidders and you’re going to pay higher prices,” he said.
Joe Armendariz, of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association, claimed the proposed agreement was “really a payback” from some supervisors to unions that had contributed money to their election campaigns.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Armendariz said. “Just get out of the way and let these contractors bid their jobs.”
CalPortland Construction representatives said the nonunion company employs 270 local workers and that 85% of the county’s workforce is nonunion.
“Why are you disenfranchising 85% of the county workforce?” said Jesse Bishop.
Danny Devereaux said CalPortland has asked the unions for apprentices every year but received no cooperation, adding the company has a program for training cement truck drivers that 10 people from disadvantaged communities completed in the past year.
Andy Caldwell, of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, said his organization is not taking a position on the proposal because it needed more information about it.
“We’re afraid you’re throwing the unions bones to chew on because later you’re going to throw them a bone to choke on” by halting oil and gas production, Caldwell said.
Chuck Huddleston, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 413, said the union supports the agreement because it can help develop a career path for people who are traditionally underrepresented in the trades.
“We believe it can be a long-term benefit to the community,” he said.
Other supporters disputed opponents’ claims the agreement would raise county construction costs by 30%, with one person arguing that came from “big companies that came in here [to] shoot this down.”
“This isn’t rocket science,” said Michael Lopez. “This is what you want to take care of local people to make something of themselves.”
Scott Zimmerman said the Carpenter’s Union will soon have a new state-of-the-art training center in Santa Maria, and it supports the agreement because it would “keep tax local and provide local training.”
Hart said he had been through this issue as a Santa Barbara city councilman and “a tremendous amount of misinformation is being repeated today.”
“The contractors question why we’re doing this,” Hart said, explaining it’s because “too much of this work is going out of this county” to “big nonlocal contractors.”
Williams objected to the charge that he was paying back unions.
“I resent the charges of insidiousness,” he said. “If we wanted to fix the deck, we would have fixed it way before this.”
Hartmann openly supported the unions.
“There’s been a war on unions and organized labor for the last 20 years,” she said. “I believe people are much stronger when they have an organized force.”
Adam indicated that wasn’t the source of his opposition.
“I am not anti-union,” he said. “I just want the taxpayers to receive the biggest bang for their buck.”