Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009 | The San Diego Unified school board late Tuesday night opted to hash out a work agreement with a union coalition on how $2.1 billion facilities bond that voters approved in November is spent.

The move was widely seen as a sign of union prowess on the San Diego Unified school board, which tilted in November to a new majority that is more sympathetic to labor. Its new members include Richard Barrera, a labor organizer who ran unopposed, and John Lee Evans, a child psychologist who was strongly backed by the teachers union in his bid against incumbent Mitz Lee. Both voted along with school board President Shelia Jackson to begin negotiating the agreement, in opposition to board members John de Beck and Katherine Nakamura.

The decision came at the end of a bitter meeting marked by shouting and booing from the hundreds of people within the packed auditorium and from the crowded hallways outside. It pitted two muscular organizations — the union coalition Building and Construction Trades Council and the trade group Associated General Contractors — against each other in a high stakes bid for how the school’s dollars would be controlled.

Critics fear the board’s move is the first step toward negotiating rules that could prove preferential for labor unions, while proponents say the agreement will level the playing field and improve the livelihoods of thousands of San Diegans.

“This is a battle for life and death for the community,” said Richard Lawrence, a longtime local affordable housing advocate who decried the number of low-paying jobs in the city. He added, “As long as that trend continues we will have communities that do not live up to their potential.”

School board member Katherine Nakamura, who opposed the action, said she had gotten more e-mails about this issue than any other controversy in her six years on the board. She called the rush to a decision offensive and said she felt “shanghaied.”

“It feels wrong. It feels invasive. It feels like we’ve got pirates on our supertanker climbing over the decks,” Nakamura said. She later added, “It is one thing to work with labor to make sure people are treated fairly. It’s another to hijack a $2.1 billion bond.”

It is unclear what exact protections or privileges such an agreement will provide. The resolution approved Tuesday said little about the potential terms of a “project stabilization agreement,” which would be negotiated by labor groups and the school district.

Such agreements are commonly known as project labor agreements and typically involve a tit-for-tat in which unions agree not to strike in exchange for workplace concessions and union wages.

Proponents say they allow both unionized and nonunionized groups to bid equally for work, but critics say the rules often dissuade nonunion companies — also known as open shops — from bidding for work.

The San Diego Unified resolution mentions only that the agreement would provide opportunities for local workers and small businesses, involve apprenticeship programs that have state approval, and push for bond projects to be completed on time and within budget. It specifies that the agreement will be negotiated with the Building and Construction Trades Council. All other details will be decided in negotiations.

“It is far too early to talk about any specific outcomes because we don’t know what the specifics of an agreement would be,” said Stuart Markey, who was recently hired to oversee the $2.1 billion bond.

Union opponents argue that such pacts, commonly known as project labor agreements, are a veiled entry to preferential treatment for unions and their workers. Contractors that donated heavily to help pass the bond are among the fiercest opponents of the project labor agreement, and their employees turned out in droves Tuesday night to counter the plan. Their stickers and T-shirts reading “No PLA!!!” jostled for space alongside those of hundreds of unionized workers with stickers reading “Not Just a Job But a Career.”

“We know from history what PLAs are,” said Pete Saucedo, executive director of apprenticeship programs for the local chapter of the Associated General Contractors, a trade group that protested the labor resolution. “They mandate union workers. … It is not about local workers. It is about market share. They want the money.”

Eric Christen, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said that such agreements can require open shop workers to pay union dues and chip in to union benefits programs — even if they already pay their own benefits. Some agreements have also required all workers to be dispatched from a union hiring hall to construction sites, Christen said, preventing nonunion companies from directly managing their own employees.

“It is really theft,” Christen said. “A guy is forced to pay double benefits and dues.”

Whether such agreements cost money — and how much — is disputed by unions and their opponents. Those calculations hinge largely on whether it is believed that the agreements stifle competition for work. Opponents estimate that culling competition through a labor agreement could cost San Diego Unified $400 million on its $2.1 billion bond — the equivalent of more than 60 projects planned to revamp local schools — and would force the school district to undercut its own promises for the sweeping list of bond projects.

Union proponents contend that the agreements can actually save money by improving workplace safety and avoiding labor disputes, and could encourage more union shops to bid for jobs. They marshaled hundreds of supporters to combat their opponents’ claims. Roy Grimes, the president of the Sacramento City Unified school board, said that a similar agreement in his district saved money and improved the quality of work, as did a former school board member from Los Angeles Unified. Some framed the agreement as a social justice issue and an investment in the future of San Diego.

“It is not enough to repair our schools if we are simultaneously creating or reinforcing poverty,” said Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association, the union that represents teachers and other educators.

Others felt it was too soon to hatch any agreement. The San Diego County Taxpayers Association urged the school board to wait until a bond oversight committee was convened to make any decisions about the new facilities bond — an idea that resonated with Dorothy Leonard, who led that committee during the last bond. And the man widely credited with rescuing the last San Diego Unified facilities bond, Lou Smith, was bewildered by the seeming rush to make an agreement with little knowledge of its potential terms.

“This is awfully early to talk about this,” Smith said. “We need a rough draft of what an [agreement] might say.”

Responding to questions about why the measure could not be delayed, Barrera said that with staffers planning to start selling bonds in March, the board needed to get the ball rolling so that negotiations would be concluded by the time work began.

Short of convincing the board to forgo the agreement, Christen and his allies pushed to join the negotiations over what, exactly, the agreement would entail. De Beck indicated that he would welcome contractors to the negotiations, as did Nakamura, but they were overruled by the rest of the board. Barrera argued that including contractors in the talks could allow them to manipulate the contracts they were bidding on.

De Beck broke with his historical support for unions in opposing the labor measure, which he said would increase costs. He twice called his action “political suicide.”

“I’m a labor guy,” de Beck said, “but I’m not a fool.”

This is not the first time the new school board has taken a controversial action backed by labor: Trustees have already reversed the layoffs of dozens of teachers who were cut during a budget crisis, a sensitive move as another budget crisis looms for schools.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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