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‘The entire county has over 80 percent of workers who have chosen not to be in a union.’

Statement: “The entire county has over 80 percent of workers who have chosen not to be in a union,” Ken Bertalan, senior vice president of construction with Bergelectric Corp., wrote in a letter to the editor published by The San Diego Union-Tribune on Feb. 14.

Determination: Barely True

Analysis: Bertalan’s editorial targeted project labor agreements, or pre-hire agreements used in public works contracts that offer workplace incentives in exchange for preventing labor strikes. The debate over PLAs has been heating up as the San Diego Unified School District institutes one and the county and some local municipalities consider banning them.

Opponents of PLAs like Bertalan often cite the 80 percent estimate in a political effort to frame unions as unpopular and the labor pacts as discriminating against nonunion workers. They don’t always specifically say construction workers, but that’s who they’re talking about. Nonunion construction workers aren’t banned from the PLA contracts, but they may be required to pay union fees or find work through a union’s hiring hall to participate in the government contract.

Supporters of PLAs often challenge statements like Bertalan’s, saying the 80 percent estimate doesn’t accurately reflect union membership among construction workers in San Diego County and every worker doesn’t have the “choice” of joining a union.

Furthermore, they call the union membership statistics irrelevant because PLAs don’t ban the use of nonunion workers. It distracts the debate from other issues, such as cost savings or requirements to use local workers, they say.

Despite the debate over the statistic’s importance, we wanted to get to the bottom of it. Opponents mention it frequently, including County Supervisor Bill Horn in a news release and with Channel 10 News this week.

Bertalan’s statement relies on two key assumptions, and we’ll go through both.

  • First, it assumes the labor force in San Diego County mirrors national estimates for union membership.
  • Second, it assumes all construction workers have consciously decided whether or not they want to join a union.

Based on those two assumptions, Bertalan said more than 80 percent of the county’s workers — specifically referring to construction workers — have chosen against union membership. It’s unclear whether that statement is factually accurate since the evidence is scarce.

The survey Bertalan said he based his statement on puts union membership in the nation’s construction industry around 15 percent and another puts union membership in all local industries around 14 percent, but they don’t specifically estimate the county’s nonunion construction workforce. State officials do compile a census of construction jobs in San Diego County, but matching that data with union membership is still a hazy process.

So while the 80 percent figure is plausible, there’s no hard data to prove San Diego County’s specific numbers.

Beyond the statistical estimates, it’s worth noting that Bertalan and other PLA opponents talk about union membership as a “choice” that’s offered to all construction workers. In reality, the option of becoming a union member is not available to every construction worker since some companies don’t have unions or are too small to have unions.

But being a nonunion worker is still a choice, PLA opponents argue, because people could form unions or switch to companies that have unions.

If you know where I can find information about union membership of construction workers in San Diego County, please let me know. I would be interested in updating this Fact Check with the best information available. You can contact me by sending an email to keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org.

— KEEGAN KYLE

Summer Polacek

Summer Polacek was formerly the Development Manager at Voice of San Diego.

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