When San Diego voters went to the polls last November, they were faced with a choice of five candidates for three open seats on the local school board. In one district, Richard Barrera was unopposed; in the other two, incumbent Shelia Jackson won with 61.1 percent of the vote, and John Evans beat incumbent Mitz Lee with 54.5 percent.If they'd paid any attention at all, voters would know that all three winners were ideologically aligned with labor unions, and they might even know that Barrera and Evans are aspiring progressive politicians who in the past had either run for, or considered running for, other elective offices.
So it should have come as no surprise at all when Barrera, at the urging of the San Diego County Building & Construction Trades Council—the umbrella union for local skilled workers—proposed a project labor agreement (PLA) between the school district and the people who'll be doing the work on the projects funded by the recently passed school-facilities bond measure, Prop. S.
Does a PLA benefit the unions? Absolutely. But, frankly, that's part of what voters were asking for when then cast their ballots for Barrera, Evans and Jackson, who cast the three votes that directed school district staff to begin negotiations with the unions on specific PLA language. Moderate Katherine Nakamura could have gone either way, but we were surprised that liberal John deBeck took such a strong stand against a PLA.
Noting that he's normally a union guy, deBeck said at the district's Jan. 13 board meeting that his primary objective as a board member is to keep construction costs low, not to advocate for union jobs over non-union jobs, and he said that, logically, if PLAs mandate union-quality benefits, it only follows that contractor bids will be higher than they otherwise would. We won't argue that point. We also won't take issue with charges from opponents that a PLA is a way for the unions to increase their market share of local workers.
But, in our view, that's a good thing. Bringing more workers into the union fold would raise wage and benefit standards overall. How can anyone be opposed to that, considering how wages for years have stagnated while costs have risen dramatically? We can understand why the building contractors would be opposed to a PLA—when it comes to competitive bidding, it might eat into their profits as they're forced to find efficiencies in places other than wages and benefits.
DeBeck raises an interesting question, though: Is it the job of the school board to engage in such social engineering? We say yes. While it could be argued that the district and taxpayers might get a little more bang for each buck on the front end if these jobs attract lower bids, it doesn't do the district's students any good in the long run if lower bids results in lower wage and benefits standards. After all, the children of these workers attend public schools, and poverty-stricken children with no access to good preventative healthcare are less likely to be prepared to learn and excel.
Sure, even without a PLA, public-school projects pay prevailing (union) wages, but, reportedly, contractors can deliberately misclassify types of non-union workers, turning an “electrician” into a “laborer,” for example, allowing them to pay lower wages. A PLA is a way to truly ensure payment of prevailing wages, as well as higher workplace standards. It's also the only way to mandate healthcare benefits for workers doing public-sector jobs. PLA workers don't have to be union, but they do have to be hired out of the union hall, and while they're doing PLA jobs, they get union-style treatment.
Again, union critics will howl about mandating private-sector benefits, but we'll repeat our position that taxpayer-funded projects should be role models of sorts in how workers should be fairly treated, and it continues to amaze us how into short-term gratification these fiscal hawks can be. You don't get anything for free: If taxpayers don't pay on the front end, they pay on the back end in the form of services such as emergency-room care, not to mention other societal costs associated with lower-income communities.
All that said, PLAs are used all over the place, including by other local public agencies and school districts elsewhere, and the world hasn't come unglued. It's simply a way for agencies that need work done to establish the workplace environment for the people who're doing the work. We're certain that they won't mind the higher standards.