California High-Speed Rail jobs: high hopes, harsh reality

By Kevin Dayton
June 13, 2017

Defenders of California High-Speed Rail often respond to critics by touting how the project provides high-paying jobs in the construction industry for disadvantaged residents of the San Joaquin Valley. It’s one thing to proclaim intentions, but another to achieve them.

California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales spoke about high-speed rail training and employment for San Joaquin Valley workers at a December 2014 conference in Los Angeles:

The economic benefits of high-speed rail are a huge component of what we’re doing. Particularly in the Central Valley, it’s sorely needed. The Central Valley is the fastest growing part of the state but has suffered from chronic high unemployment, roughly twice the state average. Unemployment in the construction industry in the Valley is 25-35 percent. Our program is going to be a game changer for that region, investing billions of dollars into that economy. It is going to create unprecedented opportunities for people, not just to work on our program, but to be trained to work and have a career in other programs. Working with our partners, three pre-apprenticeship programs are already training people to work in the industry. We’re at the very front end of the major construction, but we’re already seeing people get jobs.

But these programs and jobs have restrictions. The California High-Speed Rail Authority and other regional and local governments have policies (such as a Project Labor Agreement, aka “Community Benefits Agreement”) to ensure construction unions get a monopoly on recruitment, training, and dispatch of workers to high-speed rail jobs. Allegedly this would provide job opportunities for disadvantaged residents who would otherwise remain in poverty.

Public records just obtained from the Fresno-based State Center Community College District reveal that unions did not offer apprenticeship opportunities to most of the 69 people who completed a union-affiliated pre-apprenticeship program funded by a state grant. Performance results for this program suggest that unions are reserving high-speed rail jobs for more favored individuals. Ironically, a few workers ended up getting jobs from local non-union contractors.

It’s All About the Unions

In early 2016, the State Center Community College District obtained a $440,717 “California Apprenticeship Initiative Pre-Apprenticeship Grant” from the Workforce and Economic Development Division of the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. The grant was meant to fund a pre-apprenticeship program jointly run by the college and construction unions to provide “Introduction to the Trades – Union-Based Training.”

This program was intended to “provide pre-apprenticeship training for underrepresented populations, ensuring a clear pathway to a registered apprenticeship program with a labor union.” According to the grant agreement, unions would provide “5 days of union-specific training for successful program completers” so that “participants gain greater skills and familiarity with each labor union they have interest in learning more about.” Goals were set for the program:

  • “at least 12 of the 15 successful completers (80%) to express an interest in becoming an apprentice in one of the labor unions”
  • “at least 1 interview for each successful completer with the labor unions”
  • “at least 10 of the 15 successful completers (67%) being hired as new apprentices by one of the labor unions”

The grant also included $27,000 specifically designated for “Laborers’ Union Initiation Fee: 90 training participants @ $300 union initiation fee.” Taxpayers would pay the mandatory union fee for participants in the State Center Community College District pre-apprenticeship program.

The grant included more than $200,000 for instructor salaries and benefits and $60,000 for the Fresno Career Development Institute, a non-profit organization whose co-chair is Fresno City Councilman Oliver L. Baines, III. Unions have strongly backed the campaigns of Councilman Baines, and he has returned the favor by introducing and promoting discriminatory union-backed apprenticeship requirements and Project Labor Agreements at the city council.

Implementation of the Pre-Apprenticeship Program: Enthusiasm and Completion Isn’t Enough

On March 1, 2016, the State Center Community College District board of trustees approved the contract for the college to receive the grant. Promotional flyers were created and given to union officials, the Fresno Career Development Institute, and a tangle of other regional government agencies and community organizations aligned with unions in order to recruit participants.

On May 10, 2016, the Career Technical Education Coordinator and Apprenticeship Coordinator representing State Center Community College District accurately told the California High-Speed Rail Authority board that “we are diligently working with other local educational institutions to establish the training and support that is necessary to prepare the future workforce for the high-speed rail system…” At that time, 21 participants of the “Valley Apprenticeship Connections – Central Valley Pre-Apprenticeship Training” program were about to start the pre-apprenticeship program as the first “cohort.” Training would be provided by the Laborers Union. A grant progress report dated June 30, 2016 stated “The group is very enthusiastic about their chances of becoming an indentured apprentice after the completion of the training which ends July 15th.”

Obviously this cohort and subsequent cohorts had to dampen their enthusiasm. A grant progress report dated December 31, 2016 noted that “Getting the completers into a state-approved apprenticeship program has been challenging. Of the 36 completers in the first two cohorts, four had been temporarily hired with Laborers and three have been fully indentured and remain employed. Of the three, two are indentured with the Laborers and one with the Iron Workers.” The report noted that some individuals who had completed the program had high scores “in the low to mid 90’s” and the college was “hoping more of our completers received job offers.”

California High-Speed Rail Jobs Weren’t There For Local Disadvantaged Workers

Where were all the opportunities to learn a trade on California High-Speed Rail though a union-affiliated apprenticeship program? Why weren’t unions assigning these local workers to on-the-job training for the construction of the viaduct over the Madera River or the demolition of numerous structures in Fresno?

An unexpected twist for a few of the disappointed prospective construction workers occurred in the spring of 2017. Union officials began lobbying the elected board of trustees of the State Center Community College District to require construction companies to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions (similar to the agreement for California High-Speed Rail) as a condition of winning contracts from the college. (See “Community College Trustees Should Reject ‘Divisive’ Project-Labor Agreements” – Fresno Bee – March 14, 2017)

Voters had recently approved a $485 million bond measure for construction at the college, and unions wanted a monopoly on the jobs. The non-union Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) aggressively opposed the Project Labor Agreement and came to the attention of college officials as a potential source of job opportunities for people who had completed their state-funded, union-affiliated pre-apprenticeship program. College officials invited ABC to participate in an upcoming job fair sponsored by the college.

As of June 2, 2017, the state-funded, union-affiliated program has achieved the following performance results:

477 Applicants and Referrals

69 Enrolled

64 Completed

10 Placed by Unions

3 Hired by Non-Union Construction Companies

Obviously the propaganda from the California High-Speed Rail Authority about job opportunities for disadvantaged workers in the San Joaquin Valley is an incomplete story. Three possibilities about the reality:

  1. The numerous jobs claimed by the California High-Speed Rail Authority and its backers aren’t actually being created.
  2. Unions already have workers (perhaps from out of the area) reserved for California High-Speed Rail jobs and cannot provide them to local people seeking careers.
  3. The union-affiliated pre-apprenticeship program funded by the state was not valid preparation for an apprenticeship program and was instead a scheme to fund union operations (starting with the $27,000 for union initiation fees).

It’s time for the California legislature, the news media, and private watchdog organizations to examine the claims about job creation for the construction of California High-Speed Rail and determine who is actually getting these alleged jobs. The Project Labor Agreement for California High-Speed Rail declares ambitious training and employment goals that sound appealing when politicians cite them to the public. If the State Center Community College District pre-apprenticeship program is typical, those goals aren’t being met.


Kevin Dayton, a frequent contributor to CPC’s Prosperity Digest, 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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