Unions Win Big in City Construction Showdown

Contractors Accuse Councilmembers of Being Bought and Paid For

Mayor Cathy Murillo and Councilmember Randy Rowse started the meeting far apart and stayed that way throughout.

Paul Wellman

Mayor Cathy Murillo and Councilmember Randy Rowse started the meeting far apart and stayed that way throughout.

Meagan Harmon, the newest member of the Santa Barbara City Council, applauded all the “passion, conviction, and emotion” she encountered on both sides of the issue. Councilmember Randy Rowse termed it “the low watermark” of his nine years in office. Councilmember Jason Dominguez recalled he’d been in one of the most dangerous and violent townships in South Africa when the council deliberated over the issue in early December. “I wish I could go back to safety,” he not-so-comically lamented.

At issue was an arcane spending authorization of $95,000 connected to an obscure but ferociously controversial labor agreement that gives building trade unions vastly more say in who gets hired and who does not for City Hall construction contracts of $5 million and more. In the upper echelons of City Hall, no one is really sure how these project labor agreements ​— ​or PLAs, as they’re called ​— ​will actually work. But there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who won what’s been one of the most intensely waged behind-the-scenes battles anyone in City Hall can remember: the trade unions.

By the time the council began deliberations this Tuesday afternoon, no council ears had been left unbent. The unions ​— ​electricians, pipefitters, iron workers ​— ​that spent generously, even lavishly, in recent elections to get the council’s current majority elected made it clear the issue was extremely important to them. So, too, it should be noted, did many of the nonunion building contractors who, for many years, have built City Hall’s major public works projects. But in the end, the outcome wasn’t even close. The council voted 6-1 in accordance with union wishes to hire outside legal consultants to help City Hall negotiate the next step.

Contractors like Lee Cushman and Frank Schipper all but accused the council majority of being bought and paid for by the trade unions. Cushman itemized just how much the unions paid to the election campaigns of Mayor Cathy Murillo ($49,500), Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez ($8,000), and Councilmember Eric Friedman ($10,500). Schipper was only somewhat more diplomatic. “I admire your loyalty to the people who gave you the money to run your campaigns,” he told the councilmembers, adding he was “horrified” by what they were about to do to city residents.

Murillo, a staunch union supporter who frequently extols the spirit of her fiercely pro-union grandmother, didn’t bother to respond. Gutierrez dismissed the criticism as “factually indefensible and personally desperate.” Friedman acknowledged the process by which the PLA was initially passed was “flawed” and then launched the most detailed and statistically rich defense of it of any councilmember. In the past 15 years, he noted, only 19 projects were big enough to trigger the PLA requirements, less than two a year. It was notable that the only councilmember to vote against paying the outside consultants ​— ​Randy Rowse ​— ​will be termed out of office at the end of this year and is not seeking election to any other office.

PLAs are negotiated deals between governmental agencies and trade unions, and typically they require the hiring of work crews under terms and conditions approved by those unions. Most don’t require all jobs be filled exclusively by union labor, but union workers are clearly given first crack. Proponents claim that PLAs strengthen union apprenticeship programs that help develop cadres of skilled local workers that can compete for such high-paying jobs. And at Tuesday’s council meeting, many union spokespeople showed up and argued that PLAs help secure for women, minorities, and veterans the sort of jobs that will enable them to afford the high cost of living in Santa Barbara. Many contractors, one union spokesperson said, are “culturally monochromatic” and not open to hiring workers who don’t look like them.

A host of contractors showed up, too, arguing that such agreements are nothing but bait and switch. Because there are no union contractors in Santa Barbara and only a handful of union subcontractors, they argued, few Santa Barbara trades workers would stand much of a chance under the new scheme. And the definition of “local,” they warned, was extremely elastic, a theme Councilmember Rowse riffed on. Locally caught seafood, he noted, typically means it was caught anywhere “between San Diego and San Francisco.” Under PLAs, nonunion contractors are allowed to bring only a limited number of “core” workers on PLA jobs; the rest would have to be approved by the unions. In sum, they argued, PLAs would hurt far more local workers than they’d ever help.

What the actual facts are when it comes to PLAs ​— ​as opposed to what their champions and detractors claim ​— ​Councilmember Kristen Sneddon acknowledged she didn’t have a clue. She tried to insert a couple of provisions to give nonunion local contractors a seat at the bargaining table, but to no avail. She tried to expand the number of “core workers” nonunion contractors would be allowed and to restrict the definition of “local,” also to no avail. Despite her clearly stated misgivings, Sneddon voted in favor of the contract spending. Those issues, she’d been assured, could be hammered out in negotiations. Such negotiations, however, do not occur in public.