Whenever California voters approve a sizable bond measure to fund construction at a school or community college district, union lobbyists quickly scramble to win control of the work through a Project Labor Agreement. At the Salinas Union High School District, a flood of union campaign money preceded a September 29 board vote to abandon negotiations and impose a Project Labor Agreement under terms demanded by the unions.
In November 2014, 60.3% of voters in Salinas, California authorized the Salinas Union High School District to borrow $128 million for facilities construction by selling bonds to investors. Information provided to voters about the bond measure did not indicate any intention of the school district to require its construction contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions. In fact, the district had successfully completed a previous bond-funded construction program without a Project Labor Agreement mandate.
Four months after voters approved the borrowing, a Project Labor Agreement discussion appeared as an item on March 24, 2015 board agenda. After the head of the Salinas Valley Federation of Teachers urged the board to mandate a Project Labor Agreement, most of the board members declared their enthusiastic support for it.
On May 26, the board voted 5-1 to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement with the unions. Unless the district could negotiate different terms to protect fair and open bid competition on its contracts, the union agreement would require all contractors on a new high school to obtain their journeymen and apprentices from the unions, pay all employee fringe benefits to union trust funds, and arrange for their workers to pay union dues and fees.
To the dismay of board members, the finalized Project Labor Agreement did not come back for quick approval.
District staff and its attorney tried to work in the interest of the district to negotiate better terms and conditions, rather than simply signing the standard Project Labor Agreement template provided by the union attorney. Throughout the summer, union negotiators were unwilling to budge on a variety of provisions.
In the meantime, the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Salinas Taxpayers Association, and several local and regional construction associations informed the public about the union plot. The Chamber of Commerce even publicized the names and official public phone numbers of board members.
It was a rare and unexpected occasion of public accountability for the policy decisions of the school board. In fact, most news coverage of the Salinas Union High School District from March through September was about construction labor issues, not the education of high school students.
Board members responded angrily during board meetings and in local newspaper articles about what was happening. They complained about negative community attention generated by business groups and the barrage of critical phone calls. They also expressed frustration with the district’s failure to surrender to union negotiating demands. At board meetings, they responded to questions from the district’s negotiating attorney by showing disinterest and even contempt for the arcane but important issues disputed in the proposed agreement.
It’s reasonable to assume that the unpleasant public attention to this issue worried the three incumbent board members up for re-election on November 3, 2015. All three of them supported the Project Labor Agreement.
Starting at the beginning of August, the unions supporting the Project Labor Agreement (the Salinas Valley Federation of Teachers, the California School Employees Association, and the Monterey/Santa Cruz Building and Construction Trades Council) began funding the campaigns of those three incumbents running for re-election. In fact, these unions were the only major contributors to their campaigns. See the timeline below.
At the September 22 meeting board meeting, the attorney representing the school district began yet another presentation outlining areas of disagreement between the unions and the district regarding the Project Labor Agreements, As usual, she sought direction from the board. But for some reason, a majority of the school board chose this time to terminate the negotiations. They scheduled a special board meeting on September 29 solely to vote on the version of the Project Labor Agreement desired by the unions.
At that meeting, the board voted 5-1 for the Project Labor Agreement. Union officials organized an impromptu celebration rally outside of the school district headquarters and had photos taken with some of the board members who voted for it. The unions’ investment of money in the board members’ campaigns had presumably helped to ensure approval of the Project Labor Agreement.
Whether the union campaign contributions ensure re-election of the board members remains to be seen.
Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.