Days before his departure from city council, Gregg Hart is working to push through a policy to require Santa Barbara to employ union workers for its publicly financed construction projects.
Council colleague Kristen Sneddon has a one-word description of the benefits she says that local taxpayers would enjoy from the hiring scheme:
Sneddon’s uncharacteristically terse comment sets the stage for Tuesday’s council meeting, where Hart will seek to win approval for a so-called Project Labor Agreement policy to govern hiring for the city’s capital programs, as he prepares to leave council for a seat on the Board of Supervisors.
At stake are tens of millions of dollars in public construction, much of it deriving from the Measure C sales tax increase voters approved last year for street repairs and building a new police station, as well as jobs, wages and benefits for workers -- who may or may not live in Santa Barbara.
In an interview, Hart shrugged off the suggestion that his PLA initiative is an 11th hour effort to do a favor for his labor allies before leaving City Hall.
“I’d planned to do this when I had the votes to make it happen,” he said. “I had to be patient for some time and now I have the votes."
For Sneddon, however, vote arithmetic matters less than the substance of the plan, which she says is being hustled through before Hart’s exit, without due diligence as to its long-range impact on local crafts workers and contractors, union and non-union alike.
“Gregg wants to see it done before he leaves, but I don’t see that the whole city needs to put a rush on this to meet an arbitrary deadline,” she said. “We just haven’t had the proper amount of time to consider the impact on the city budget, our local workforce and our local businesses.”
In the weeds. The PLA issue is complex, and one with which local governments around the state grapple.
Spurred by Hart’s expedite request, the Public Works Department and City Attorney’s office put together a 5,943-word (you could look it up!) report that offers background on a number of aspects of the subject, while loudly proclaiming that there aren’t enough hours in a year to come down clearly on one side or the other:
“The report does not seek to resolve the merits of PLAs or make a recommendation to council. There are competing positions to the value, utility and cost impacts of PLAs and this report does not propose to resolve these conflicting positions."
No sirree, not with a ten-foot pole.
Amid the depleted but plucky ranks of our local press corps, Josh Molina is the only reporter to have covered the PLA debate consistently and in detail; for those who stayed drunk in the weeks before the election and perhaps missed his reports, you can catch up with the background here, here and here.
The nut of the matter is this:
"Project labor agreements are pre-hire collective bargaining agreements that establish standard terms and conditions applicable to a specific construction project or category of projects…
The agreement would require companies that do business with the city to first look to hire local employees from the union hall…
Typically, the agreements limit the number of employees that nonunion contractors can bring to a project without utilizing the union hiring hall system."
Bottom line: Craft unions associated with the Tri-Counties Central Labor Council like PLAs; non-union contractors, who dominate the Santa Barbara market, do not.
More work for who? The city attorney’s backgrounder notes that “approximately 66 percent of the city’s public works projects are awarded to non-union contractors and approximately 60 percent of the city’s public works projects goes to contractors located within 40 miles of the city.”
The key question for both Hart and Sneddon is this: Would a PLA policy mean that construction workers based in Santa Barbara get more or less work?
Hart told us that creating more work for locals is the primary reason why he is pushing so hard for a PLA policy.
“This will support working families and people in Santa Barbara who are struggling,” he said. “If you look under the hood, most of the work (currently) is being done out of town, and most of the money is going out of town."
Sneddon, however, says that she has seen not a shred of hard evidence supporting Hart’s assertion about more local jobs.
Noting that most of the city’s contractors are non-union, she said the PLA “would preclude many of our local companies (and) specifically put our local workforce and local businesses at a disadvantage.”
She also noted a section of the staff report stating that, “if the council’s primary objective in pursuing a PLA is advancing local hire and economic development objectives, there are other alternatives that can be considered and implemented via contractual clauses in the (construction) bid documents.”
She wants the council to review such alternatives before making a decision.
Hart said that there “are all kinds of data sets” that support his view about PLA steering more work to locals. When we asked him during the telephone interview to point us to one specifically, he said he couldn’t remember at that moment but would forward it to us.
By the numbers. At Tuesday's meeting, the council is to consider three broad options: placing a PLA on all capital contracts; imposing it on a case-by-case basis; keeping the status quo.
While Sneddon is expected to have support from council members Randy Rowse and Jason Dominguez (who is out of town and likely to join the meeting by phone) Hart counts on the votes of the three other strongly pro-union members – Mayor Cathy Murillo, Eric Friedman and Oscar Gutierrez.
Democratic apparatchiks all, the four are likely to be mindful not only of the county committee party platform – which calls for “The broad use of Project Labor Agreements” – but also major campaign contributions each has received in recent years from unions representing carpenters, laborer, plumbers and other crafts.
Hart received at least $17,500 from crafts unions in the last two years alone, when he ran and won his council election against token opposition and, seven months later, captured a supervisors’ seat unopposed.
Fun fact: On August 14, Hart signed a formal memo asking city staff to draft a PLA policy. Three days later, he received a $2,500 check from the political action committee of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, according to his campaign finance reports, one of the unions that would benefit from such a policy.
To the surprise of no one, Smilin’ Gregg says the two things are completely unrelated, and that the electricians’ check must have been a late-arriving donation for his supes campaign against no one, which ended in June.
Images: Gregg Hart; Deep in the weeds guy; Kristen Sneddon; Soviet-style voting (Primoforum.com).