Thursday, November 20, 2003

PLA (project labor agreements) for SCC Construction Projects

November 20, 2003

Board votes for unions to do SCC construction
By Nada Behziz

ROCKVILLE -- Builders hoping to do construction work on Solano Community College's $124.5 million projects will need to hire union workers, the Governing Board decided Wednesday.

By a 7-1 vote the board mandated the use of project labor agreements - or PLA - for all endeavors under a lucrative bond measure narrowly passed by voters in 2002. The measure includes two extension campuses in Vallejo and Vacaville and a drastic renovation project at the existing campus in Rockville to include a new student learning center.

Boardmember Denis Honeychurch was the first to support the motion even before discussion began on the agenda item. A second to the motion wasn't far behind.

The boardroom was awash with the florescent green shirts of union members present to show their support of the labor agreement.

Carl Sanchez, a representative with the sheetmetal workers union, asked those in support of the PLA to stand up - nearly everyone in the room did.

Once everyone took their seats again, Sanchez continued with the positive attributes the agreement would bring to Solano County and the college community.

Supporters claim the agreements foster cooperation and reduce the risk of construction delays and increased costs from workers shortages or labor disputes. The deals typically contain a no-strike clause and agreement upfront on wages, benefits, working conditions and grievance procedures.

Opponents say such agreements are anti-competitive, drive up costs and effectively shut out 80 percent of the local workforce that doesn't belong to a union. They call the agreements a tool to coerce construction workers into joining unions.

A report by the project's construction manager, Kitchell CEM, said that some projects in other cities have experienced increases in bid costs of up to 15 percent due to the use of PLA.

But union officials dispute the findings and say that the SCC projects won't see an increase because the contractors will work directly with the college.

"It's just bogus," said Louis Franchimon, business manager for the Napa-Solano Counties Building Trades Council, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. "Some areas have outside contractors to do administration duties, but that's not the case with the college."

Also, as part of the motion, it says that the negotiated PLA should not cost the district any funds to either administer or enforce the contract. Kitchell CEM reported at the meeting that they plan to have all the bids out by May 1 and for the board to hear a progress report at their last meeting in January.

PLAs aren't new, but they have gained wider acceptance in recent years. They were first used on big public works projects in the 1930s, including the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams.

Locally, a PLA was first adopted by the Vallejo School District in 2001. More recently, Fairfield City officials decided to add a PLA to contracts for government offices currently under way.

"It promises a streamline project," Franchimon said. "They eliminate the possibility of work stoppage - both union and nonunion."

The problem, opponents say, is that PLAs cut competition from merit-shop contractors and take away workers' freedom of choice.

Kevin Dayton, government affairs director for the Golden State Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, a merit-shop group, said it's ludicrous to claim that PLAs stabilize the workforce.

"Contractors have no say in the negotiations for an agreement," said Dayton, who was the only speaker at the public hearing to oppose the labor agreement. "Unions negotiate it."

Nevertheless, once the decision was rendered the quiet boardroom rang with applause and contentment from union supporters. Dayton, however, said it isn't over until an agreement is negotiated.

"The board is going against common sense," Dayton said. "Now it's up to university staff to determine if they want to give unions what they want or listen to the taxpayers who voted for the bond measure."

Franchimon told the board before leaving, "When you look back at this meeting after the project is completed, you will know you made the right decision."

Nada Behziz can be reached at

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