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  • Nov. 10, 2016

Accountable to the Public: Project Labor Agreements Have Consequences at Election Time


Local elected officials in California who vote for Project Labor Agreements expect unions to reward them at election time. But sometimes the scheme backfires.

The Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction and its allies are continuing an 18-year effort to inform voters why Project Labor Agreements cut bid competition and raise costs for taxpayers. In the November 2016 election, a community college bond measure, a candidate for county board of supervisors, and a tax to subsidize construction of a football stadium were all ripe targets for public accountability.

In 2015, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District board of trustees voted 4-1 to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement with construction union officials and their lawyers. Then the construction unions paid for a poll, which indicated that district voters would approve a sizable bond measure if it was on the ballot.

The board proceeded to put a $340 million bond measure (Measure X) with a Project Labor Agreement mandate on the November 2016 ballot. Eager to enjoy their government-mandated monopoly on the construction, unions funded the bulk of the campaign.

In response, opponents of the Project Labor Agreement launched a well-funded, well-organized, cutting-edge strategic No on X campaign to inform the public why the district did not deserve permission to borrow $340 million from bond investors. It was the first campaign in California to provide each household with an individualized calculation of how much the bond measure would cost them, including interest on the bonds.

In the end, 51% of voters approved the bond measure, falling short of the 55% needed. It was one of only about 20 of 184 bond measures in California to fail on November 8, and it was the second largest bond measure out of the approximately 20 that voters rejected.

Meanwhile, appointed San Joaquin County Supervisor Moses Zapien was expecting voters to elect him to a full term in his Stockton-based district after he voted twice for Project Labor Agreements. As a member of the Stockton City Council, Zapien had been a ringleader in requiring contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements, even through the city was just coming out of bankruptcy. After his appointment by Governor Brown to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, he tried and failed to impose a Project Labor Agreement on a hospital expansion project. As the 2016 election approached, unions and much of the business community in Stockton backed Zapien.

But Project Labor Agreement opponents and Zapien's election opponent Tom Patti highlighted to the public how Zapien was trying to advance his political career. Zapien not only voted to give unions a monopoly on public works contracts through Project Labor Agreements, his vote violated the California law (the "Brown Act") that requires public meeting agendas to provide adequate notice of proposed actions. 

Voters didn't show the same excitement for Zapien's ambitious schemes that the city's business and union leadership were experiencing. Tom Patti won with 54% of the vote.

The Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction and its allies were also involved in a broad coalition that opposed Measure C, a proposed sales tax on hotels that would pay for a new hybrid professional football stadium and convention center expansion in San Diego. The San Diego Chargers football team agreed to sign a Project Labor Agreement for this large urban infrastructure project and even participated in a press conference with top city union officials to announce the deal. But union campaign involvement was unable to overcome popular disgust about using public funds to subsidize a rich football team owner and his political friends. Voters rejected the proposed tax measure.

Yes, fiscal responsibility can still be defended successfully in California.

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