Another California Local Government Gives Unions a Contract Monopoly to Get State Funding

Kevin Dayton

Numerous California elected officials are condemning President-Elect Donald Trump’s proposal of immigration-related conditions for local governments to obtain federal grants. But at the same time, California elected officials are imposing their own union-related conditions for local governments to obtain state grants.

Local control is obviously not the principle at issue.

There is now a second case in 2016 of a California local government voting to give unions monopoly control of construction contracts as a condition of getting a state grant. The first was Monterey County, where the Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 on April 12 to require contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions in order to get a $10 million state grant for a water storage project.

Now, the City of Fresno – the fifth most populous city in California – has surrendered to the power of union lobbyists in Sacramento. On December 15, the Fresno City Council voted 5-2 to require its construction contractors to sign a “Transformative Climate Communities Project Labor Agreement” with the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Building and Construction Trades Council. Even the outgoing Republican mayor and incoming Republican mayor sacrificed fair and open bid competition and fiscal responsibility in order to get state grant money.

Proposal and Approval of the Labor Agreement Was Irregular and Perhaps Illegal

The vote for a Project Labor Agreement was surprising for numerous reasons. The City of Fresno had an ordinance from 2000 through 2014 banning Project Labor Agreements on city construction contracts. The city council repealed the ordinance at the end of 2014 in response to a newly-enacted state law that would cut off state funds to charter cities that prohibited Project Labor Agreements in public works contracts. Now Fresno has a government-mandated Project Labor Agreement.  This policy reversal shows how California has changed politically in a generation.

Placement of the item on the December 15 meeting agenda was another surprise. The Fresno City Council had never discussed a Project Labor Agreement or authorized staff to negotiate such an agreement with the unions. All of a sudden, a fully-negotiated agreement was provided to the city council for quick approval. It remains unknown who directed the city attorney to engage in contract negotiations with unions without any public notice. (The mayor is a suspect.)

Adding to the surprise was the placement of the Project Labor Agreement on the Fresno City Council meeting agenda at 5:36 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. It was added as a supplemental item to the already-published meeting agenda. Even more strange, city staff never produced a staff report to explain the item to the city council or the public.

Transformative Climate Communities Project Labor Agreement - City of Fresno

Working late for the unions: the Fresno City Clerk received this Project Labor Agreement at 5:36 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.

Of course, a staff report may have limited usefulness if the final policy is not known until it’s time for the vote. It was obvious that the City of Fresno was negotiating the agreement even after it was presented to the city council for review. Supplemental versions of the Project Labor Agreement were added to the agenda item in the days leading up to the city council meeting. At the meeting itself, the city attorney had to read a list of several new additional changes to the Project Labor Agreement.

Even the vote itself was unusual. A break was called during the meeting so that one councilmember could be patched in via her cell phone from Tiberias, Israel after 1:00 a.m. her time to vote YES. She twice called the vote “historic,” perhaps inspired by her vote at a historic place. (Other people watching the proceedings called the vote “illegal.”)

Powerful Republicans Pushed for Approval of This Union Agreement

Although she didn’t have a vote, outgoing Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin came into the meeting and sat at the council dais to urge the city council to vote for the Project Labor Agreement. Swearengin is a two-term Republican mayor who unsuccessfully ran for California State Controller in 2014 and remains a leading prospect in 2018 to challenge eight years of Democrat control of all eight statewide elected offices. She was involved in promoting a Project Labor Agreement for the California High-Speed Rail project. (See the April 30, 2013 UnionWatch.org article Exposing the Plot Behind Project Labor Agreement for California Bullet Train.)

Also speaking and voting in support of the Project Labor Agreement was Councilmember Lee Brand, another Republican, who was elected mayor in November to replace Mayor Swearingen. Republican councilmembers Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier were the only two NO votes.

Motivation for the Project Labor Agreement Was Downplayed, for Obvious Reasons

Without a staff report, there weren’t any official documents that justified the Project Labor Agreement. But brief comments from the mayor and supportive city councilmembers gave clues about what inspired this sudden union deal. Speakers noted that the administration of Governor Jerry Brown would look favorably on giving a $70 million grant to the City of Fresno if it mandated a Project Labor Agreement.

In September 2016, Mayor Swearengin announced with a state legislator that Governor Jerry Brown had recommended giving $70 million to the City of Fresno for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through construction projects near the planned California High-Speed Rail station in Fresno. On December 6, Mayor Swearengin, Mayor-Elect Brand, and another city councilmember had a meeting at the Governor’s office and apparently discussed the conditions necessary to get that grant money. Three days later, the negotiated Project Labor Agreement materialized on the December 15 city council agenda for approval.

At the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, the board and staff were open about why they were voting for the Project Labor Agreement. It wasn’t a mystery there. In fact, public records obtained from the county confirmed that union lobbyists worked with a state legislator to establish the union deal as a requirement for the county to get the state grant.

Eventually the truth will be revealed in Fresno. A public records request was submitted to the office of Mayor Swearengin on December 12. It may reveal key information about who demanded the Project Labor Agreement as a condition of the $70 million grant.

SOURCES

December 15, 2016 Fresno City Council Agenda Item: Approve Transformative Climate Communities Project Labor Agreement

To Get Homeless Out of Neighborhoods, Fresno Council Targets Recycling Centers (Labor Agreement: Also on Thursday, the City Council voted 5-2 to approve adoption of a project labor agreement…) – Fresno Bee – December 15, 2016

Councilwatch: HSR Picks Up Controversial $2.4mil Parking Lot, Contractors Fight PLAsCV Observer – December 15, 2016

Analyzing Fresno’s PLA Vote – GV Wire – December 22, 2016

Fresno City Hall

Fresno City Hall, where the mayor and 5 of 7 city councilmembers sold out to unions to get $70 million from the Brown administration.


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.

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