Ballot measure banning PLAs destroys spirit of fairness

In these columns, I have been writing about the finest values that have built San Diego: the spirit of partnership that brought water to an arid region, the spirit of quality workmanship that constructed the first plane to fly across the Atlantic, the spirit of innovation that generates power from natural resources, and the spirit of fairness that allows the best to compete on value to taxpayers.

Yet, there is an emerging threat that is set to destroy our values and forever make us enemies of one other. One contractor pitted against another, one worker against another, each set to banish the other — not through fair competition, but through ballots fueled by political rhetoric. That threat has already consumed the cities of Chula Vista and Oceanside and San Diego County.

We are now seeing that dangerous threat creeping into the city of San Diego, where contractors associations have funded a so-called “Fair and Open Competition” ballot measure in the city. This is a regulatory ban on project labor agreements that unfairly prohibits a public agency from even considering a PLA, even if taxpayers derive efficiencies similar to the private sector.

In my previous columns I have described what a PLA is. In a nutshell, this is a pre-hire contract that provides terms and conditions of employment on a construction project. By scheduling work force needs, it is a tool to save precious taxpayer dollars, ensuring that a project is built on time and on budget. PLAs are often a vehicle to reinvest in the community, by creating local jobs, apprenticeship training and enhanced safety during construction. PLAs also provide access to career pathways for war veterans in San Diego through programs such as “Helmets to Hardhats.” PLAs can thus be a win-win solution for the needs of taxpayers and the community.

In the private sector, PLAs have worked for Toyota, Honda, Disneyworld and virtually every power plant recently constructed in California. Locally in the San Diego region, PLAs have been used to construct Petco Park, Broadway 655, Otay Mesa Energy Center, Palomar Energy Center and Olivenhain Dam.

In the San Diego Unified School District, the construction of the career technical education facilities projects built under PLAs have saved 40 percent of the budgeted costs — taxpayer savings in excess of $8 million. Last week, by denying review to an appeal by the Associated General Contractors challenging the PLA, the California Supreme Court established that not only are PLAs fair and open, but also that the public agency has every right as a free-market participant to shop for the best deal for taxpayers.

For those who may doubt the value of PLAs, I ask: Did the bans on PLAs in Chula Vista, Oceanside or the county change anything? As far back as anyone recollects, there has never been a PLA entered into by these public agencies, so nobody got any more work or less. The only thing that changed was the public vitriol, animosity and political demagoguery that made taxpayers even more skeptical about investing in public works construction. A lose-lose for everyone.

There is hope that this mindless self-destruction within the construction community will come to an end. Last Friday, both houses of California legislature strongly supported, and sent to the Governor to sign, a bill (SB 922) that will further ensure that PLAs on public construction projects include taxpayer-protection provisions and will empower the governing boards of local entities to decide whether or not to use PLAs that include such provisions on their local projects.

This is a true vision of fair and open competition entrenched in the values that San Diegans hold. Public agencies across the region and the state will at last be free to choose whether to enter into a PLA on a project-by-project basis. If they do choose to voluntarily enter into a PLA, the following taxpayer protections will be mandated:

  • Both union and non-union contractors can bid on and be awarded contracts;
  • Workers cannot be discriminated based on race, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, political affiliation or membership in a labor organization;
  • Any work stoppages or disruptions on projects will be prohibited, with any dispute being resolved by a neutral arbitrator;
  • Workers on hazardous jobs will be drug-use tested.
Contrary to false claims by opponents, the bill does not require any public agency to use PLAs on public projects. Under this bill, public agencies such as San Diego County cannot adopt bans against PLAs that include these taxpayer protections. Charter cities, such as Oceanside and Chula Vista, are not prohibited from adopting such bans, but will cease to receive state funding if the bans are not lifted by 2015.

There has never been stronger taxpayer reason to oppose the PLA ban in the city of San Diego, as the city could lose future state funding and jeopardize major projects. In these tough budget times, it is only fair that public agencies in San Diego have all the tools available to them, as private developers do, by open competition based on merit, not the force of the ballot-box bully.

Tom Lemmon is the business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO.

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6 UserComments
Jim Summers 8:09pm September 14, 2011

Mr. Lemmon talks about an emerging threat that is set to destroy our values and forever make enemies of one another. The Union Leadership have set out to buy politicians and bully public agencies to utilize project labor agreements that force open shop contractors to sign union agreements on public projects. The Unions are creating the threats that set to destroy our values and forever make enemies of one another. You don't see open shop contractors or agencies pushing the politicians to put forth legislature that doesn't allow union firms to compete fairly on public projects. The Unions are putting forth these agreements that do nothing but put money in their pockets. The proponents of "Open and Fair Competition" believe Union contractors are good enough and competitive enough to compete on prevailing wage public works projects without any special agreements. Mr. Lemmon and his partners are the ones that have drawn the line in the sand and created the animosity that currently exists.

Gary Moss 2:26pm September 14, 2011

Mr. Lemmon neglects to mention that PLAs increase the cost of construction by 13 to 15%. These monies could be spent on other projects or go toward educational programs. PLAs are another example of union bullying and strong-arm tactics. Unions are afraid of competition and must resort to buying politicians and old world socialistic tactics. Heil!

Shawn Paroline 1:15pm September 14, 2011

Does Mr. Lemmon really believe that we will accept his attempt to explain the unions practice of bullying of public owners, extorting union members, and posturing for political favoritism as FAIR and OPEN COMPETITION? The title of the article should be titled "Join Me in Supporting the Wrong Thing for our Community: How to Extort the Government for Political and Finanancial Gain."

jake 9:47am September 9, 2011

PLA's are the opposite of open and fair competition.

Lindsay 12:54am September 9, 2011

Well written and correct.

Richard Faris 5:25pm September 8, 2011

From his commentary, Mr. Lemmon seems to be experiencing backward day where everything is the opposite of how it is presented. The Fair and Open Competition people did not cut any backroom deals with Gloria McLeod. They didn't threaten private developers with endless environmental lawsuits if they didn't accept a PLA. They didn't threaten politicians with massive support for their opponents if they didn't support a PLA. They didn't demand that workers not affiliated with them pay dues and their employers pay benefits for which the worker will never qualify and therefore lose, since they will not have enough PLA hours. As far as I can see, the only thing the Fair and Open Competition people want to do is prevent developers and politicians from being strong-armed into capitulating to PLAs, thereby giving all workers and contractors an equal chance of getting the jobs. That's called the American Way. I would call yours, the Old Soviet Way.