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ABC fights to preserve apprenticeship training opportunities for future construction work force

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Construction contractors working at the San Diego Unified School District now have to sign a contract with construction unions affiliated with the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council. This contract is commonly called a Project Labor Agreement, although supporters of the controversial agreement have dubbed it with the more pleasant-sounding name of “Project Stabilization Agreement.”

As demanded by the unions, the agreement includes provisions that restrict the ability of contractors to train apprentices. It takes away the rights of many apprentices to obtain on-the-job training on San Diego Unified School District construction projects.

How did this agreement come about, and what implications does it have for training the future construction work force of San Diego County?

Politics brought union agreement to the school district

As far back as 1999, construction union lobbyists were putting pressure on the San Diego Unified School District to require its contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement. In November 1998, San Diego voters had approved a $1.51 billion bond measure called Proposition MM, and unions saw an opportunity to require contractors on this huge construction program to obtain all workers from unions and pay all employee benefits into union trust funds. In addition, if the agreement was implemented, contractors would have to obtain apprentices exclusively from union apprenticeship programs (often called Joint Apprenticeship Training Programs, or JATCs).

In part because of the opposition of local business groups, the board of education did not consider a Project Labor Agreement in the end, although the district did adopt an in-house “labor compliance program” that initially invited participation from volunteer investigators affiliated with union-oriented Labor Management Committees. Construction projects funded by Proposition MM were bid under fair and open competition, and contractors were able to provide on-the-job training under state law to apprentices from any eligible program approved by the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards.

After the Proposition MM money was spent, the board of education placed a $2.1 billion bond measure called Proposition S on the November 2008 ballot to fund more school construction. The voter information for Proposition S mentioned nothing about contractors being required to sign a union agreement, and voters approved it. But one other significant change for the school district happened at that election: an incumbent school board member named Mitz Lee was defeated by her challenger, John Lee Evans. This gave construction unions a supportive majority of three votes on the five-member board of education to approve a Project Labor Agreement.

New school board implements union agreement

The new school board wasted no time in advancing the construction union plot to control future school construction at the San Diego Unified School District. At its Jan. 13, 2009 meeting, the board of education voted 3-2 to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement (now called a Project Stabilization Agreement) with construction unions in order to work on projects of $1 million or more. Despite the objections of Associated Builders and Contractors, the Associated General Contractors and numerous other community and business groups, the board of education approved a final Project Labor Agreement with the unions on a 3-2 vote on May 26, 2009. The board voted 3-2 again on July 28, 2009 to fix defects in the original agreement and adopt a new agreement.

In all three votes, board members Richard Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson supported the union agreement, while board members Katherine Nakamura and John de Beck opposed it. Apparently seeing the Project Labor Agreement as part of a fundamental structural change in local and national ideological identity, school board member Evans summed up the vote on May 26 this way: “I think the bigger picture that people are realizing -- and this is what scares some people -- is that San Diego is changing, the United States is changing … this is a different city … we are looking at a different community.”

Restrictions on apprentices in the Project Labor Agreement

What is the nature of this “different city?” It is a city in which unions have a monopoly on apprenticeship training and as a result have tremendous power over what kinds and how many people enter the construction work force. There is no competition among apprenticeship programs and no choice for young people considering a career in the construction trades.

There is no acknowledgement in Article XIV of the Project Labor Agreement (see Primary Source, above/below/right/left) that state-approved unilateral (non-union) apprenticeship programs exist, such as the programs affiliated with ABC. Nor is there acknowledgement that apprentices are enrolled in such programs.

The union agreement directs potential workers into “participation in such Joint Labor Management Apprenticeship programs.” It says that “the unions agree to cooperate with the contractor in furnishing apprentices as requested up to the maximum percentage.” A subcommittee of the Labor Management Committee oversees identification and development of programs and procedures leading to “the full utilization of apprenticeship programs.”

It is unclear what would happen if a contractor working at the San Diego Unified School District and signatory to the Project Labor Agreement actually had the gumption to request and accept an apprentice from a non-union apprenticeship program in order to fulfill the requirements of California law and regulations regarding apprenticeship training. An educated guess can be made based on the experience of a contractor who worked on a job at the Los Angeles Unified School District and signed the Project Labor Agreement in effect there.

The contractor requested apprentices from the applicable International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union program, but then requested apprentices from the non-union program run by the Los Angeles/Ventura Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors after the IBEW program failed to dispatch apprentices. The ABC program provided 17 apprentices, who received the appropriate on-the-job training on the project. Subsequently, the IBEW and its related trust funds sued the contractor in federal court, contending that the contractor should have paid journeymen wages and benefits to the apprentices because they were not dispatched from the applicable union apprenticeship program as specified in the Project Labor Agreement.

On Nov. 3, 2009, a district court judge ruled that the Project Labor Agreement required apprentices to come from union programs. The judge awarded the union $272,738.63 in underpaid trust contributions, including interest of $55,940.34, along with liquidated damages of $55,940.34 and additional auditor fees of $7,177.50. The contractor was given a rude lesson about signing a Project Labor Agreement and then bucking the unions.

What is ABC doing to preserve freedom of choice in training programs at state, local levels?

Project Labor Agreements at local governments are not the only tool used in California to restrict apprenticeship training opportunities in the construction trades. An ongoing political battle continues at the state’s California Apprenticeship Council (CAC) over the approval of new apprenticeship programs and the approval of existing apprenticeship programs to expand into new geographical jurisdictions. Unions routinely manipulate state laws and regulations to block approval or expansion of apprenticeship programs that would compete against their own programs.

The situation is so reprehensible that the U.S. Department of Labor has removed the authority of the state of California to regulate apprenticeship for federal projects because of the discriminatory “needs test” enacted into law as part of Assembly Bill 921, signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 (his first year in office). Commonly referred to as “derecognition,” this drastic federal action was initiated in 2002 and finalized in 2007.

In 2005, a federal administrative law judge ruled that the U.S. Department of Labor has the right to “derecognize” California’s authority to regulate apprenticeship on federal projects. The decision noted that the “needs test” in the California Labor Code used by unions to prevent new or expanded apprenticeship programs “does not promote competition among programs, does not consider the needs of individuals seeking apprenticeship training and limits training opportunities for apprentices.” That’s a concise and accurate description of how state law discourages competition and choice for apprenticeship training in the construction trades.

On the local level, construction unions in San Diego County are aggressively trying to monopolize apprenticeship training by encouraging local governments to require contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements that contain language similar to Article XIV of the union agreement for the San Diego Unified School District. For example, on April 28, union representatives asked a committee of the San Diego City Council to require contractors to sign Project Labor Agreements to work on city public works projects. The committee chose not to proceed with a Project Labor Agreement, but the threat remains.

ABC has responded to this threat and others with a “10 in 2010” program to ensure fair and open competition and freedom of choice in training in the 10 most populous cities in San Diego County. Here is the status of the campaign as of May 1:

10 in 2010: A Quest for Fair and Open Competition Policies in San Diego County’s Ten Most Populous Cities


Population (2008)


1. San Diego


On Nov. 18 San Diego citizens filed a notice of intent with the city clerk to circulate petitions for a ballot initiative amending the city charter to guarantee fair and open bid competition. Signature gathering is winding down and the initiative will be on the Nov. 2 ballot. For more information, visit reformsandiego.com.

2. Chula Vista


On Sept. 1, the Chula Vista City Council voted to place a proposed ordinance on the June 2010 ballot guaranteeing fair and open bid competition. The initiative will be on the June 8 ballot. For more information, visit fairnessforchulavista.com.

3. Oceanside


On Dec. 16, the Oceanside City council voted to place a proposed charter on the June 2010 ballot that includes a section guaranteeing fair and open bid competition. The charter will be on the June 8 ballot. For more information, visit passthecharter.com.

4. Escondido


Voters in most of these cities and their elected city council members are overwhelmingly supportive of getting the best quality construction at the best price though fair and open bid competition. Visit thetruthaboutPLAs.com for regular updates about policies concerning fair and open bid competition in these seven cities.

5. Carlsbad


6. El Cajon


7. Vista


8. San Marcos


9. Encinitas


10. National City



San Diego County


Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 on March 2 to enact an ordinance guaranteeing fair and open bid competition.

In the meantime, there will be elections for seats on the San Diego Unified School District board of education in November 2010 and November 2012. ABC has conducted or obtained several polls indicating that about 90 percent of San Diego County residents want fair and open bid competition, and 80 percent would consider voting against a candidate if he or she supported policies that required contractors to sign union agreements.

For the apprentices deprived of opportunities to learn a construction trade at the San Diego Unified School District, there is hope because the people are with you -- not with the special interests that want to control the training programs for the future construction work force.

Dayton is the government affairs director for ABC of California. He coordinates ABC’s state and local political operations, including issue analysis and the development and implementation of strategies to protect fair and open bid competition and the freedom of choice in apprenticeship training.

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