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SD cities file suit to manage construction wages

Most of us understand that one size does not fit all. California’s constitution also recognizes this by allowing cities, with the approval of the voters, to establish charter city status. A charter city, and there are more than a hundred in California, can, in many instances, develop rules and regulations that meet the needs of their citizens rather than follow the broad brush strokes of California law. There is, however, at least one exception. If the matter is of statewide concern, general law applies.

A lawsuit was recently filed by four San Diego County cities and El Centro in Imperial County. The purpose of the lawsuit is to reaffirm local control and self-rule in the face of union-backed legislation that is intended to put state law in control when it comes to construction practices.

Vista’s leaders asked voters in 2007 if they wanted the city to adopt a charter. The proposal was overwhelmingly approved. One persuasive argument was that with a charter the city could design its own construction policy.

After complying with open bidding and low responsible bidder requirements, the city would also be able to establish its own conditions for contract relationships and, when appropriate, construction wage structures. The point is to allow local contractors to use their market-driven wage rates when working on locally funded construction projects.

Subsequently, a California Supreme Court ruling confirmed that under Vista’s newly minted charter the city was not required to demand the imposition of California’s unrealistic construction wage system, euphemistically called the “prevailing wage.”

The court declared in a 5-2 decision that if the money to pay for the construction is obtained from local taxpayers with no federal or state funding, artificially high pre-determined wage rates are not required. This ruling applies to every charter city.

After this decision, union leaders rushed to the capital and directed their sycophants, sometimes playfully called elected Democrats, to make some changes to obviate that situation.

The state-mandated wage structure is almost without exception a reflection of union wage and benefit levels, amounts that simply do not reflect the real construction wages paid in many local areas, including Vista. The union could not stand the idea that someone other than their own negotiators could set construction wage levels for locally funded public work.

Under pressure by the union leaders, a compliant legislature passed several laws, all of which, in words not so simple, declared that it would not let any charter city have any state construction dollars if those locally managed cities did not change their charters to require the artificial wage levels for all construction, regardless of the source of the money.

This “we won’t give you your money back” concept was also intended to require consideration of imposing project labor agreements (PLAs), again on construction funded solely with locally generated dollars.

A PLA nearly always favors construction unions and makes it easier for contractors saddled with union agreements to compete. The paychecks of union bosses also improve with such requirements. Employees on construction projects covered by a PLA are typically required to contribute money to the union as either dues or fees. Those dues and fees in part pay union bosses. They are also the source of union political and election funding.

In essence, union “fellow travelers” in Sacramento are perfectly happy to have charter cities deal with local issues in ways that better serve their citizens, unless the people who run their offices, union bosses, don’t like the results.

Those elected to positions of power in Sacramento delight in taking tax money from local citizens. However, if the people in those hundred-plus charter cities hope to get any of it back for construction, they have to change their own rules.

This is similar to those times a kid brings his football to a pickup game and then decides the rules of that game don’t suit him. “Change the rules or I’ll take my ball and go home.”

The catch in this case is that the ball is money and the money doesn’t belong to the complainer. In part, it has been taken from the local citizens who made the rules. “I’ll take your ball and go home” is how this one shakes out.


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

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User Response
2 UserComments
Michael Englehart 8:01am May 11, 2014

I thought it was illegal to use union dues to fund political activities without the expressed consent of the member; ...or was that just a proposal that went nowhere?

alex 3:11pm April 8, 2014

Actually it sounds like you're telling me that you want to manage your own affairs with my money. Kind of like the Jersey kid who sued her parents when they decided to cut her off for not following their rules.

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Comments are moderated by SDDT, in accordance with the SDDT Comment Policy, and may not appear on this commentary until they have been reviewed and deemed appropriate for posting. Also, due to the volume of comments we receive, not all comments will be posted.

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