COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | ERIC CHRISTEN

People of San Diego will have their say on PLAs in June

During this special time of year, when the issue of temporal and transcendent morality is injected into the public square so significantly, there is an issue that has played out in San Diego more prominently than in any other city in the United States the past four years.

Ever since Big Labor special interests helped to chase away the $1 billion Gaylord resort in Chula Vista -- and the thousands of construction jobs that would have gone with it -- San Diego and the surrounding region have been ground zero in the battle over project labor agreements.

A PLA is a union-friendly agreement that is written by and for Big Labor special interests that comprise less than 20 percent of the construction work force. It mandates that merit shop workers for all intents and purposes join a union as a condition of employment.

Since the Gaylord debacle, the San Diego Unified School District has placed a project stabilization agreement on its $2.1 billion Proposition S construction bond, something never mentioned when this bond was being sold to the public in 2008. Despite the predictable cost increases (more than 20 percent, or $16 million to date) that have occurred as a result of this exclusionary agreement, the SDUSD school board, a board that owes its elections to Big Labor money, just voted to extend the PSA to the life of the bond.

To counter such corruption and misuse of taxpayer monies, a broad coalition of taxpayer, business and community groups has brought the question of freedom and open competition to the people. In the cities of Chula Vista and Oceanside, voters easily passed measures banning PLAs despite Big Labor spending more than $750,000 to oppose them. Last November, voters in San Diego County voted 76 percent to 24 percent for freedom and against government-mandated coercion. Seventy-six percent of the people couldn’t agree on what the weather is like, but they did agree on this issue. This is because PLAs really aren’t that controversial. The people get it, and once again the people in the city of San Diego will be able to have their say in June 2012, as the latest PLA ban has just qualified for the ballot.

What is rarely mentioned, however, in all of the public policy discussions, editorials, newspaper stories, radio ads, television interviews and debates on PLAs that have occurred here and elsewhere are the moral implications of using the government as an agent to prod contractors and their employees into union agreements.

Is it right for a government to require contractors to make employee fringe benefit payments to union-managed trust funds and obtain their workers from a union hiring hall? What kind of thinking leads a representative of the people to require workers to pay initiation fees and dues to a union as a condition of working on a public project paid for with workers' own tax dollars? What kind of community leader wants to build four taxpayer-funded schools for the cost of five to curry favor with a special interest group?

Project labor agreements are associated with fiscal irresponsibility and mismanagement, internal corruption, and lack of accountability to the people who pay taxes for the government to provide services. The areas you typically see PLAs are areas where citizens have abdicated their responsibilities to oversee their local governments. As a result, unions fill the resulting political vacuum and attract ambitious people who see unions as a vehicle to attain personal power and position.

Call it what you will -- corporatism, statism, crony capitalism or simply government picking life’s winners and losers -- the results are the same: an inefficient allocation of precious taxpayer dollars and the reduction to second-class citizenship of any worker out of favor by those in power.

Arguments based on reason and common sense have no power in this kind of environment. Just listen to and read the intellectual and moral illiteracy that emanates from today’s so called union “leadership” or any of SDUSD’s Board of Trustees. That such people are allowed to hold power demonstrates the citizenry has, in these instances, failed in its constitutional and moral duties.

The good news is the citizens have a chance to correct that which is wrong. In June, San Diego voters can ban PLAs on any city-funded project, thereby restoring, in part, a more moral and just society in which each person is treated as an individual free to make decisions for themselves and free of government coercion.

Christen is executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction.

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