COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | ERIC CHRISTEN

Enough is enough: Labor unions are robbing taxpayers

For two years now our community has been witnessing firsthand the self-destructive tendencies of the modern union movement at work. The most public display of this has been their attacks on Gaylord Entertainment and Gaylord's planned $1 billion resort and convention center in Chula Vista. Using their allies and enablers in the "environmental movement" and in state bureaucracies like the California Coastal Commission, they have engaged in environmental blackmail, or as we refer to it, "greenmail." This is a tactic where unless a project is built using only union labor, as Gaylord has been told, the project will be attacked and delayed until such time as the owners see the light -- or pack their bags -- taking jobs and tax revenue with them.

In the past greenmail has been used on Petco Park, the Poseidon Desalinization Project in Carlsbad, and the massive Ballpark Village Marriott. Currently unions are using it on the $300 million Lane Field Development in downtown San Diego. Lane Field project owners have rejected the unions' extortion tactics and will now battle it out with them, hoping that fairness and standing up to this bullying strategy wins out. Unfortunately the owners of the Poseidon project (Poseidon Resource Group), Petco Park (John Moores) and the Marriott (JMI Realty) caved to the union threats, thereby throwing the 90 percent of the local construction workforce who chose to be union-free under the bus. Who says discrimination doesn't pay?

But the destructiveness of unions hardly ends there. This week we learned that two companies, hired by the City of San Diego to clear away homes destroyed by October's wildfires, charged three times the initial estimates for the job, which is considerably more than contractors hired by homeowners to do similar work. How could this be? Well these two companies happen to share some things in common, such as being from out of the area, being union and having to pay their workers so-called "prevailing wages."

A.J. Diani Construction Co. of Santa Maria and Watsonville-based Granite Construction Co. cleaned debris from 112 of the 365 home sites destroyed in the October fires. The companies billed by the ton and charged an average of approximately $83,400 per home whereas initial estimates had been $28,000 per home. What is worse is that in some instances the two companies charged almost nine times what privately retained contractors charged to clear nearly identical lots! The total bill to taxpayers and homeowners: $9.4 million. It also appears that these companies charged for more cleanup than they actually completed, which is something one would hope the District Attorney looks into.

So why did these two charge so much compared to the companies hired by private citizens? Environmental Services Department director Chris Gonaver, who oversaw the City's efforts, said its contractors are required to meet a list of restrictions and conditions that don't apply to privately hired contractors. One such requirement is having to pay the aforementioned "prevailing wage." California is one of only two states (New Jersey being the other) where this "prevailing wage" is based on a modal rate, or, to put it simply, a union rate. There is nothing "prevailing" about such a wage and it is nothing more than a gift to unions, unions who own the state legislature, who in turn makes sure that these bloated, anti-competitive wages remain. How anti-competitive? Well as common sense, studies from U.C. Berkley and California State University-Sacramento, and this local example prove, "prevailing wages" cause projects to cost more, between 30-55% more!

So how did these two companies get this work and leave local taxpayers with this outrageous bill? All of this was predictable, and in fact, I did predict it while it was happening. At the time, the City and the State came out with requirements that allowed for no-bid contracts to go to these companies. Outraged because I knew of local contractors who could do this work, I looked into how the City and the State could get away with this. I was told the Mayor's office had their hands tied as this was being handled by the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB). After checking into this never before heard of entity I learned that only companies who met their "requirements" (sound familiar?) could do this work. This conveniently discriminated against the local quality contractors and allowed two out of town companies, free to fleece owners and taxpayers alike, to charge their inflated union wages.

What is most maddening about all of this is that these alphabet soup bureaucracies and their left-wing enablers in the legislature have created a system that benefits the few (unions), who in turn, through their political contributions, make sure that government continues to grow even more -- thus perpetuating this corrupt and wasteful cycle.

Be it greenmail or "prevailing wage" the ones left holding the bill, regardless of how dire the emergency or how wasteful and profligate the ends, are the average citizens of our City and State. As the saying goes, if you're not outraged you haven't been paying attention. It's time to start paying attention.


Christen is the executive director of Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction. Send comments to editor@sddt.com. Letters are forwarded to the author and may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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