The North City Pure Water Facility / Photo by Megan Wood

To end a labor dispute that’s halted work on one of the largest and most important water projects in San Diego history, Assemblyman Todd Gloria rolled out a bill Friday to require union-friendly terms for work on the project.

The project, known as Pure Water, would provide a third of the city’s drinking water in coming decades. After years of starts and stops, the first $1.6 billion part of the project looked to be on track, until a labor dispute put everything on ice this summer.

The Associated General Contractors sued to block union-friendly contract terms the City Council and mayor approved last year. The contractors argued those terms conflicted with Proposition A, a 2012 ballot measure designed to prevent unions from dominating city construction contracts.

In June, a judge agreed with the contractors’ argument.

Their victory may be short-lived, though.

Enter Gloria and Senate leader Toni Atkins, who co-wrote the bill. They said the delay caused by the litigation is needless and costing taxpayer dollars. Though the deadline to introduce new bills this session has long passed, Gloria used what’s called the gut-and-amend process to scrap language from an existing bill and replace it with a separate issue altogether.

Their bill, announced Friday, requires all Pure Water-related construction contracts that receive state funds to include project labor agreements. The agreements, known as PLAs, generally mean labor unions guarantee that a project will have workers – and they won’t go on strike – but in exchange, all workers must pass through union halls with potential added fees and benefits.

The state is expected to help pay for $600 million of the project.

“This bill will save this project from almost certain failure and get it back on track,” Gloria said in a statement announcing the legislation.

Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, the bill either clarifies that Prop. A wasn’t supposed to restrict union work on city projects that use state funds. Or it usurps the will of city voters who wanted to be sure union and non-union workers an equal shot at work on city-funded projects.

Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment and Construction, which battles with unions, said unions had gotten their “tools in the Legislature to save them once again from the will of the people.”

Tom Lemmon, the head of the coalition of labor unions known as the Building Trades Council, said Prop. A allows PLAs if the state or federal government requires them.

“Thankfully under Todd’s leadership, the state is poised to make that requirement as a condition of receiving funds,” he said in a text message.

Locally, the Associated General Contractors’ lawsuit seems to have backfired.

Their theory was that a victory in court would have helped them not only prevent union-friendly contract terms in San Diego but in other cities that have adopted similar ballot measures, like Chula Vista.

On paper, the theory may have made sense. A judge backed their interpretation of the law. The city faces a legal deadline to get Pure Water up and running, so it didn’t really have much time for years of appeals in court.

But, in the real world, things worked out differently. Instead of backing down, the city had another way out: state legislation.

Another group of contractors in town, the Associated Builders and Contractors, declined to join the lawsuit. The group’s new president and CEO, Shandon Harbour, is trying to build a better relationship with labor, with a goal of reaching some kind of labor peace.

The city’s plan, itself a compromise between the City Council and Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer, had explicitly union-friendly terms on two of 11 contracts – but they affect the $400 million water treatment plant at the heart of the whole project.

Now, if Gloria’s bill passes, there is likely to be 11 union-friendly contracts, rather than only two. That may cost members of both the Associated Builders and Contractors and the Associated General Contractors.

“The outcome is zero percent of a watermelon rather than 10 percent of a grape,” Harbour said.

Eddie Sprecco, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, declined to comment on suggestions his lawsuit had backfired catastrophically.

Harbour’s theory is there’s enough to work to go around, for union and non-union workers alike. There’s Pure Water, but also a revamp at the airport, a possible convention center expansion, among major projects that will require lots of workers.

“We want to be part of it,” Harbour said. “So how we become a part of it is not fighting.”

Unions, though, are clearly on the rise in San Diego, a city once dominated by Republican politics. But that era is likely now at an end, as the city becomes another Democratic stronghold, like other major American cities. Not only is there now a Democratic supermajority on the City Council, but one of its remaining conservatives, Councilman Mark Kersey, left the Republican Party.

That shift is paying dividends for labor unions not just in the city but around it.

In January, for instance, the Port of San Diego adopted a policy that gives “considerable preference” to contractors who do not have a history of conflicts with labor unions. The goal is to ensure that union opposition doesn’t stall or kill large bayside hotel projects.

At the Port Commission meeting, Lemmon, the union leader, got up to speak in favor of that policy. “Hashtag, brilliant!” he said.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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