Unions controlling public decisions, Convention Center expansion

Shortly after the Nov. 6 election, a headline appeared in the U-T San Diego saying organized labor is now willing to give the city of San Diego permission to expand the San Diego Convention Center. That isn’t the exact wording of the headline, but it was the implication. The rest of the story makes it clear that without this permission, proponents of the expansion faced a boatload of delaying tactics intended to derail the work.

The decision by voters to allow public employee unions to continue to collect dues and spend that money on politics without the written approval of individual union members is disappointing, but as the story about the Convention Center makes clear, a different result on Proposition 32 would not have made an immediate difference to the control organized labor has in some circumstances.

Unions already have three obvious bites of the apple when elected officials make decisions. Bite No. 1 involves collective bargaining. A good many matters beyond wages and fringe benefits are, by court decision and for other reasons, subject to negotiations with public employee unions. Bite No. 2 is the ability of the unions to collectively withhold services, that is to strike, if they don’t like what they get or don’t get through the bargaining process. The third obvious bite is the ability to spend member-paid dues to help defeat less than cooperative politicians and support those more favorable to union leaders, whether the members like it or not.

There are four more bites. Organized labor can force many decisions into the legal system. That can, and often does, drag out the implementation of a point the unions couldn’t win with the first three bites such that it becomes a practical impossibility to put it in place. Bite No. 5 is their ability for surrogates in the regulatory apparatus at virtually every level of government to take up the union’s cause.

The sixth taste of the apple is the regulatory apparatus itself. Anyone, including the unions, can raise such a fuss over things like environmental impact statements that, once again, projects can be delayed until they become financially distasteful. In short, organized labor has significantly more opportunity to affect public policy and public decisions than others who are affected by those decisions. Finally, public employee union members can vote for or against the re-election of their employers.

Organized labor represents about one-tenth of California’s taxpayers. The rest of the state’s citizens have but four shots at the apple. They can go to court, protest permits, voluntarily give money to support candidates, and they can vote.

The Convention Center expansion is just one example of the extra strength afforded to the unions. According to the U-T story, the union and the city worked out agreements about safety and environmental concerns. In exchange, the unions decided to back away from legal challenges to the funding mechanism and to the environmental impact statement. The trades also obtained agreement from the construction joint venture team to build the project under a project labor agreement.

The PLA is the crux of the issue. Absent that, previous history asserts, the unions would not have backed off. For example, Poseidon’s desire to build a desalination plant was not about to be considered by the California Coastal Commission until the chair of the commission was told, during a meeting at which permitting the plant was up for consideration, that a project labor agreement had been reached. Prior to that, the chair would not allow the issue to be considered. Once the PLA was acceptable to the developer, union objections on environmental grounds faded into the sunset of a willing dues-collecting union office.

Further south, a developer ultimately gave up on a multimillion-dollar end destination resort. The developer said that it would not accede to extortive demands that it sign a PLA. That same Coastal Commission and other permitting bodies that bend to the will of the unions would have needed to give their approvals.

PLAs do nothing that the normal approval process cannot. On public projects like the Convention Center, benefit values and pay above private-sector levels are required by the state’s mandated wage law. Construction quality is not affected by a PLA, nor is time or budget. Local hire goals can be set separately as well.

PLAs help only the unions. For everyone else they add cost and limit opportunity.

Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart. He can be reached at

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