Since the early 1930’s, project labor agreements (PLAs) has been the construction method of choice on any number of major public works projects. The Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, Alaska Pipeline, St. Lawrence Seaway and many highway projects have been built under PLAs.

In California, PLAs were used to construct the Shasta Dam, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), Lawrence Livermore Labs and San Francisco International Airport’s newest terminals. Over a dozen California school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, Sacramento and Contra Costa are using PLA’s to build their bond programs. L.A. Unified and Contra Costa have been so satisfied with the results that each re-signed their PLA every time a new bond measure was passed.

The San Diego County Water Authority currently does most of their projects under a PLA and won National awards for the Olivenhain Dam. Petco Park and the Omni Hotel are other notable San Diego PLA construction projects.

What is a PLA? In its simplest form, it is an agreement between the owner of a construction project and the local building trades describing the terms and conditions which will govern the project. All PLAs have standardized work conditions which allow projects to progress smoothly and the requirement that all workers be dispatched by the local hiring halls virtually guaranteeing that all labor on the job will be local residents. This clause in and of itself helps insure that the project will be a boon to the local economy.

The remainder of the PLA needs to be negotiated, but generally has all the benefits that a local community want to receive from their tax dollars. Most PLAs have provisions encouraging the use of minority-owned businesses and local businesses. The payment of good wages as well as health and retirement benefits to all construction workers is always a requirement. Often, training programs are added to prepare local youth for a career in construction.

On the recently negotiated Ballpark Village PLA, a community benefits agreement was also added to the $1.5 billion project. This agreement provided for affordable housing above and beyond legal requirements, the most stringent of environmental standards and a clause that requires any jobs created by the project to pay living wages.

It is only recently that PLAs have become controversial and political. And that is unfortunate, because as illustrated above, all the benefits I wrote of in my previous blogs can be accomplished using a PLA.

So why have PLAs become controversial? Because no matter how good an idea is, there will be detractors, and since this is the United States, detractors can take their case to the courts. In this case, however, the courts repeatedly sided with the right of public agencies to use PLAs. In the 1993 case, Building and Construction Trades Council vs. Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts/Rhode Island (aka Boston Harbor), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that state and local governments have the right to use a PLA. Despite this decision, the Associated Builders and Contractors still tried to take their case to the California Supreme Court in 1999. The court’s decision was the same.

When the law is not on your side, politicization is the next best option. And if you tell a lie often enough, it is often taken for the truth.

Case in point: The recent controversy over the potential new convention center in Chula Vista. You may have read that the unions are responsible for trying to stop this project from being built. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that an agreement, similar to that on the Ballpark Village, had been reached with the developer. Had it been enacted, it would have been a boon to the residents of Chula Vista, not just for the life of the project, but for decades to come.

The truth is that it was the group that couldn’t win in court and is opposed to being told they should ever have to provide anything more than a fancy new building that was the one that put political pressure on the developer not to sign the agreement, and may have caused this opportunity to be lost.

Our public officials have at their disposal powerful economic clout when it comes to tax-payer financed construction. We should be encouraging them to use this clout in a way that makes our communities stronger and improves the lives of their constituents.

Christopher Hall said it best in his response to my first blog when he said,

“Building community means investing in the people, not just the bricks and mortar.”

We can do better and our association will continue to fight to make our industry a positive force for local communities.


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