EL CENTRO — Imperial Irrigation District president Erik Ortega opened discussion for changing the way the district conducts construction business by proposing Project Labor Agreements (PLA) for IID projects Tuesday, October 8, at their regular business meeting.
The packed room represented many local non-union contractors and businessmen as well as union representatives.
Ortega said in the presentation, “It is the right thing to do for this agency and the people it serves. It is consistent with our past practices and should be a model for the future. Public agencies up and down the state do this. Some of the scare tactics (by non-union businesses) I reject. They (PLAs) work for all sides, it creates a level playing field, and a higher standard of living. They work.”
A project labor agreement is when the government awards contracts for public construction projects exclusively to unionized firms.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, construction contractors and employees have the right to choose to unionize or not to. A large majority of contractors and their employees — more than 80 percent — have voluntarily opted against unionization.
Because most contractors and employees choose to refrain from unionization when they have free choice, union organizations have turned to politicians to remove that choice and impose union representation on employees from the top down, several non-union companies have argued. The method by which this is done is a project labor agreement.
A project labor agreement requires all contractors, whether they are unionized or not, to subject themselves and their employees to unionization in order to work on a government-funded construction project; a contractor must sign the agreement and subject its employees to union control.
Project labor agreements usually require contractors to grant union officials monopoly bargaining privileges over all workers, use exclusive union hiring halls, except for core workers, and workers pay dues to the union.
Norma Sierra Galindo, Division 5, argued the nation was strong in the 1950’s when unions were powerful. She accused the majority in the room of thinking people are poor because they want to be poor. She also claimed many leaders are crooks, excluding herself. Galindo argued only unions provide people who want to provide for children and for workers to get a living wage.
Construction giant Irby, that has done work for the IID since 1985, wrote a letter to the board saying it was concerned that the proposed use of PLAs would undermine the partnership that IID has developed with Irby and with several other highly qualified providers, would raise IID’s costs without any corresponding increase in value to the district, and achieve none of the goals that proponents have offered for the use of PLAs.
The letter went on to say that the terms of any PLA would need to be considered carefully, and Irby suspects that use of such agreements could make it difficult to continue working with IID.
Irby employees have decided to remain non-union. Their customers appreciate the accompanying competitive cost structure and operating flexibility. If PLAs are instituted and contractors must operate as “union shop” business, companies would not be able to bid jobs, certainly not at their more competitive prices.
Director 1 Alex Cardenas spoke out in support of having a PLA.
“I support PLAs,” Cardenas said. “All solar construction work was tied to PLAs and it worked very well for our community. This is good for our community.”
Director Jim Hanks spoke about the consequences a PLA would have on the local non-union businesses.
“Many people in this audience have made huge investments, spent their life growing their business and I respect that, and I don’t want to chop their legs off from under them,” Hanks said. “PLA means negotiation. The union gets to be at the table, IID is at the table, but who represents the non-union workers and the businesses?
Many union representatives spoke during public comments on the positivity of PLAs. Danny Ortiz, one of the union representatives, said the board has to vote in the PLA to know what is in it and answer everyone’s question for specificity.
Many non-union companies asked for a workshop before the vote in order to understand what a PLA would entail for non-union businesses, non-union workers and rate payers.
The prime arguments for PLAs were a better trained and safer workforce. Many non-union managers refuted that claim saying they had familiarity with IID’s system, rules, policies, and local terrain.
Construction crews are local, growing up and living in the Valley and attending high school in the area, according to many speakers. Also, non-union companies argued when there is an outage the local contractors respond immediately.
Russell Roben, president of the non-union local business Duggins Construction, pointed out to the board that his employees would go to the back of the union line; union workers would be called onto the job first, but his everyday workers would not unless they joined the union, then they would still be at the back of the line.
“We wouldn’t be able to use them, but only the crew the union sent us,” Roben said.
Many company CEOs said they paid top wages, 401Ks, health insurance, and their employees pay no union dues.
District 2 board member, Bruce Kuhn said all these issues can be resolved during negotiations. “The board can put a floor on these things, all these short-term projects would fall outside of the PLA. Ninety percent of this would not affect you,” Kuhn told the business crowd.
Hanks reminded Kuhn that would hold only if that was negotiated into PLA.
“We will negotiate this so this will not affect local contractors, or any non-union company,” Kuhn said. “Eighty percent of projects fall outside your concerns. We ask, ‘work with us, we will make it right.’”
Union representatives asked for the vote so negotiations could start to help local hires.
“We are hiring more locals all the time, at one of our jobs, 85% were locals.”
Travis Wallen of Irby Construction said there is already a fair and level playing field with union and non-union companies.
Kuhn again said the board will negotiate so local companies are not harmed.
Ortega read the motion which directed staff to negotiate a PLA with Imperial County building and construction trade union councils to be contracted with the district for the next ten years except for outside line work and bring proposed agreements back to the board for final review and approval. The second part of the motion directed staff to negotiate a PLA with IVW local #47 to cover all construction contracts for outside line work contracted by the district for the next 10 years, including transmission and distribution lines, substations, switch yards and related ground rigs and to bring the proposed agreements back to the board for final review and approval. The final part directed staff to work with the unions to ensure these agreements provide community benefits such as supporting apprentice opportunities and outreach to veterans and disadvantaged workers who reside within the district’s representation.
The motion also set off more comments as Hanks and businesses said it took out much of the board's negotiating hand.
“Your proposal has limited our negotiations. Some of the things in your proposal should be handled in negotiations, like terms, length, topics. You are tying the boards' hands,” said Hanks.
Ortega said the resolution is for any construction the IID doesn’t do, only what is bid out. Maintenance will be in the negotiations, he added.
The motion passed 4-1, opposed by Hanks.
Hanks then motioned for a workshop for unions and non-unions to present their sides, but Ortega said he was not interested in a workshop, and Galindo said the meeting was like a workshop through public comments. The motion failed to have a second.
“The IID just got railroaded by the unions,” said Alan Boyce, Materra Farming Company CEO.