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A ballot measure aimed at blocking union-friendly construction agreements in San Diego has qualified for next summer’s election, setting the stage for another clash between powerful business and organized labor groups.
The controversial agreements, called project labor agreements, generally require that constructions workers be hired through union halls in exchange for concessions like no strikes. Typically, governments only use the pacts for large projects when strikes might increase construction costs.
While labor groups argue the contractual pacts save government money, business-backed groups say they boost costs by deterring nonunion contractors from bidding on projects. Which side is correct isn’t entirely clear, as both have pointed to various studies and anecdotes in debates to the support their conclusions.
But at least recently, area voters have sided with business groups, spearheaded by the San Diego chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America. Last year, voters in Chula Vista, Oceanside and San Diego County approved ballot measures similar to the one now proposed in city of San Diego. Labor groups aggressively fought the measure in Chula Vista and to a much lesser degree in Oceanside and for county government.
Local debate over the issue heated up after the San Diego Unified School District decided in 2009 to use the pact on construction projects under a $2.1 billion bond. Business groups have since vowed to stop the agreements from being used elsewhere.
Like Chula Vista, with major redevelopment of the South Bay on the horizon, the debate in San Diego is expected to be contentious. Developers used a project labor agreement to build Petco Park downtown and city officials could decide to use one for similar large projects under discussion, such as a proposed Chargers stadium or Convention Center expansion.
Under the proposal, private companies could still volunteer to use project labor agreements for city contracts. The measure would simply ban the city from requiring companies to use them.
Advocates expect the initiative to appear on the June 2012 ballot, where it could be joined by another labor battle. Conservative leaders are also trying to qualify a measure that would switch most new city workers to 401(k)-style retirements and advise the council to freeze pay for five years.
Correction: The original version of this story said city officials used a project labor agreement on Petco Park. It’s been updated to say that it was in fact the developers who used the agreement, not city officials. We regret the error.
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