Contractors join forces to oppose school board’s pro-union plan
by Sebastian Ruiz
Published - 03/21/09 - 02:11 AM | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Union and nonunion contractors are publicly tussling over negotiations with the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) with board members caught in the middle.

With a $2.1 billion voter-approved school construction bond on the table, SDUSD board trustees, staff and union representatives have started working on the district’s first “Project Stabilization Agreement,” also referred to as a Project Labor Agreement. Projects dependent on negotiations include future improvements for schools in La Jolla, Point Loma, Mission Beach and Pacific Beach, such as installation of wireless networks and restroom renovations, among other improvements.

Tom Lemmon, business manager for the San Diego Building Trades Council, said the contract will provide benefits for union workers.

“I want to make sure that when tax dollars are spent, not only do they (workers) get a prevailing wage but healthcare, or pensions,” Lemmon said.

The prevailing wage is a set hourly wage paid to a majority of trade employees working on public works projects, according to state law.

But several private construction firms say the contracts would raise overall construction costs, making the bond worth an estimated $400 million less. The added expense would lead to fewer completed projects, according to Alicia Pivirotto, operations manager for the private contracting group Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction (CFEC). The agreement could also force unions to shuttle workers from Los Angeles if local unions can’t supply the workforce, she said.

“…[I]f the board pushes the [agreement], they’re discriminating against almost 90 percent of the construction industry,” Pivirotto said. “They will put a lot of companies out of business [or] force them to join the union.”

The CFEC has launched a media campaign that includes a billboard decrying the school board’s decision to consider union-only negotiations. The billboard stands in front of the Eugene Brucker Education Institute at 4100 Normal St.

Other groups are also against a union-only agreement because it would limit opportunity for trade apprentices, said Jim Ryan, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of San Diego.

“There are (approximately) 1,300… apprentices in San Diego,” Ryan said. “They essentially wouldn’t be allowed to participate if the [agreement] looks like some of the others in the state.”

Other groups against a union-only agreement include the Western Electrical Contractors Association and the Associated Builders and Contractors of San Diego, according to a statement from the CFEC.

Abdur-Rahim Hameed, president of the National Black Contractors Association (BCA), said the agreement should include provisions for historically “underutilized” private contracting firms. He recently sent a letter to the board recommending that 25 percent of the work go to “Emerging Business Enterprise” (EBE) groups. EBEs are underemployed contracting firms owned by disabled veterans, women and Latino and black entrepreneurs, among other minority groups, he said.

The remainder of the construction work, he said, should be split evenly between union and nonunion firms, with a provision the contracts be reviewed every three years.

“[The school board] should truly and honestly and fairly consider the recommendations to create access and opportunity for anybody and everybody to participate,” Hameed said.

Private contractors also fear losing jobs to imported labor because of the agreement, Pivirotto said.

SDUSD board member John de Beck, who represents schools in Point Loma, La Jolla and the Pacific and Mission Beach communities, said he opposes any contract resulting in a loss of jobs to local workers.

“We’ve got [to] make sure we guarantee local apprentices get hired, union or not, and that contractors can handle local employment,” de Beck said. “They should get the first crack at it.”

Board member Richard Barrera, a former union organizer, said the milestone agreement would lead to a higher quality of life for union workers. He said the agreement should also include a “path” for students entering the trade workforce.

“We have to make sure that the construction projects are done on time and under budget, that they keep local jobs and work to create a pipeline of opportunity for those kids that [will be] building our schools years from now,” he said.

The school board voted 3-2 in January to direct staff to negotiate the agreement. Barrera, Shelia Jackson and John Lee Evans voted in favor of the motion. De Beck and Katharine Nakamura voted against it. The final vote on the PSA/PLA is expected to occur at the end of May.

San Diego voters approved the $2.1 billion facilities construction bond in November 2008. It passed with about 69 percent of the vote, according to election results published online by the League of Women Voters of the California Education Fund.
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