EL CENTRO — The Imperial Irrigation District held a special closed session meeting Friday, November 20, as a discussion to institute Project Labor Agreements (PLA) for all hired general construction capital projects and outside line work. Trade Councils and IBEW Local 47 are the unions negotiating with the IID. The subject of PLAs has been a contentious one since the October 2019 was voted on and pro-labor directors Norma Galindo and Eric Ortega were chosen as the negotiators with the union and the district.

The IID held an open meeting Monday, November 23 as a further prelude to the upcoming vote December 1 when PLAs will be voted on as an action item.

Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction and working on behalf of the non-union contractors, sent a letter to the IID board after learning of the PLA vote to happen Tuesday, Dec.1.

“So let me get this straight: Director Ortega gets fired by the voters so out of spite, during a pandemic and on Thanksgiving week he calls a “special meeting” to ram a Project Labor Agreement through that was “negotiated” by Mike Vlaming whom you paid to craft a PLA that reads like every other PLA ever crafted. Sound about right?” Christen wrote.

During the last year’s IID public comments section, union members and local contractors have taken to the podium to argue their side of the issue. One of the arguments against the exclusive deal with the unions was presented by United Desert Communities, a consortium of non-union contractors in Imperial and Riverside County.

Desert Communities recently sent a letter to the Board stating that the vast majority of workers in both counties are non-union, but still get paid prevailing wage rates and fringes on all IID projects they work. According to Desert Communities, with the signing of the PLA, the workers would then be subject to deductions in their take home pay as they must pay into the union’s fringe benefit account. Desert Communities said in the letter to the IID that their workers would never see the benefit as the money would be sent to Los Angeles.

The organization also said the union would first draw from their San Diego hiring hall, before selecting Valley residents as union hiring is on a seniority system.

IID Board President Norma Galindo stated in previous meetings that the union brought living wages to Imperial Valley families and insured the skill levels of workers were certified.

The PLA does allow local contractors to bring along core employees. A core employee is defined in the IID/union contract as one who can prove continuous employment with the local contractor, but the number of cores is limited. However, local contractors argued in the letter that the union makes hiring the core employees more expensive than hiring from the union hall because the contractor would have to pay up to $20 per hour over the regular prevailing wage and benefits to cover the unions added cost. That would be $20 an hour extra per core employee, raising the cost of the non-union local contractor.

Eric Christian also pointed out in his letter to the IID several of the negotiated clauses.

“Your negotiated PLA mandates the following: Article 7: All workers must pay union dues. Article 8: All workers must be hired through a union hiring hall and a union-free contractor can only use five of their own workforce. Article 8.7: Non-union apprentices are not allowed to work on IID projects covered by the PLA. Article 10: All union-free workers must pay into union health, welfare, and pension plans that require 10 years vesting thereby losing that money (wage theft).”

Alan Huber, president of Elms Equipment and local non-union contractor who frequently bids IID contracts, said his local workers who join the union to work on IID jobs would never see their union contributions. Huber said the local worker could never get the 5,000 hours needed working out of the union hiring hall before being vested. The workers’ payments would stay in the union’s pocketbook. Huber also said the union disqualifies workers from ever being vested if one took any non-union job.

The letter to the board also suggested bidding would be a significantly higher cost to the District as most local contractors would not bid, and the only bids coming in would be union. Before the signing of the PLA, the District accepted non-union and union bids for projects, letting competition keep the price down.

The United States Supreme Court in Building & Construction Trades Council v. Associated Builders & Contractors of Massachusetts/Rhode Island, Inc. (1993) stated that a PLA is legal only when done on a project-by-project basis, not an overall policy.

Jeff Lyons of Landmark Consultants out of El Centro, wrote to Board President Norma Galindo explaining that when a non-union worker is allowed to man a job, the union demands that all of the fringe benefits that are currently being paid to the employee be paid directly to the union.

“This currently accounts for an additional $27.94 per hour for our employees. The non-union employee from an Imperial Valley working family will likely never see that money again as it is forfeited to the union if the employee does not work enough hours or years on union jobs.”

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