Mailers Expose Union CEQA “Greenmail” Against Solar Developers

Finally, ordinary citizens in the San Joaquin Valley learn how construction trade unions block solar power plant projects by exploiting the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Residents of Kings County (in the San Joaquin Valley of California) see local opportunities for economic growth and job creation through the construction and operation of proposed solar-powered electrical generation facilities. At the same time, local residents worry about the possibility that out-of-town developers could build or partially build these solar power facilities on former farmland but then abandon them to rust if solar energy turns out not to be profitable.

This is why the Alliance for a Cleaner Tomorrow (ACT), a project of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction (CFEC), mailed 10,000 educational pieces this week to Kings County households informing them that construction trade unions are abusing the the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to grab control of solar power construction jobs, in the process increasing costs of construction and risking the economic viability of solar energy generation in the San Joaquin Valley.

According to union front groups such as California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), the construction and operation of a solar-powered electrical generating facility has the potential to devastate the environment; that is, until the developer agrees to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions.

In a press release issued today (September 25, 2012), the Alliance for a Cleaner Tomorrow reported that it intended to make 10,000 Kings County households aware of the epidemic of union “greenmail” against renewable energy projects in the San Joaquin Valley – and specifically against Recurrent Energy‘s Mustang Solar Generation Project in Kings County.

Groups such as California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local No. 100 in Fresno exploit the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and other environmental laws to delay proposed projects. Their objective is to coerce developers to hand over monopoly control of the construction to unions through a Project Labor Agreement. The CEQA abuse racket is called “greenmail,” and it is rampant throughout California.

A San Francisco-based company, Recurrent Energy, succumbed to the union CEQA threats and signed a Project Labor Agreement for construction of the Mustang Solar Generation Project in Kings County.

Eric Christen, executive director of the Alliance for a Cleaner Tomorrow, says the following in the September 25, 2012 press release:

For too long, construction unions have claimed, with a straight face, that solar power is bad for the environment. It’s as shameless as it is absurd. The unions block or threaten to block solar power projects using the California Environmental Quality Act – commonly known as CEQA – until the developer surrenders to the unions and agrees to sign a Project Labor Agreement (PLA). This is exactly what happened on the 160 megawatt solar power plant in Lemoore called the Mustang Solar Generation Project.

The press release also outlines the details of how greenmail works.

The Kings County Planning Commission had received this letter from CURE when Recurrent (Energy) first made its plans known for a Kings County project. Like rain in springtime, these implicitly threatening letters appear like clockwork as soon as a project is announced anywhere in California…The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 100 has a long history of hiring the law firm of Adams, Broadwell, Joseph & Cardozo out of South San Francisco to dig up alleged environmental problems with solar projects. One of the most prominent was the Fresno Airport Parking solar project in 2007.

Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo is cited in the Project Labor Agreement for the Mustang Solar Generation Project.

The press release concludes with the motivation for sending the mailers:

We’re going to make sure that Kings County residents and the people of California and the San Joaquin Valley know why solar power plants are so expensive, why they are taking so long to build, and why local workers don’t get to build them,” Christen added.

When will the California State Legislature reform CEQA to stop this? The Fresno Bee published an editorial on Sunday, August 5, 2012 calling for Governor Jerry Brown to take a leadership role in reforming CEQA so that unions can’t exploit it to coerce Project Labor Agreements from developers. See “EDITORIAL: Governor Again Moves Toward Needed CEQA Reform Steps – Changes to the State Law Should Be Vetted and Discussed by All Parties” – Fresno Bee – August 5, 2012.

The editorial states the following:

Brown recently has been dropping hints he is open to a significant reform of the law. It’s clearly needed, and we hope this isn’t another instance of him shooting off his mouth. California needs significant CEQA reform.

CEQA is being abused, and defenders of the law get defensive whenever anyone suggests it. The most pernicious abuse is known as “greenmail,” with groups threatening CEQA lawsuits to get labor concessions or other side deals.

Real Reform of CEQA to Stop Union Greenmail Will Be an Uphill Battle

Setting aside the last-minute proposed Sustainable Environmental Protection Act of 2012 (which was never formally introduced and probably would have little effect in stopping greenmail), the California State Legislature considered one bill in 2012 to significantly reform CEQA. On January 9, 2012, the Assembly Natural Resources Committee considered a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) – Assembly Bill 598 – which would have given the California Attorney General the exclusive authority to file or maintain a lawsuit alleging that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), negative declaration, or mitigated negative declaration does not comply with CEQA.

The committee rejected the bill on a 6-3 party-line vote, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed. The hearing was an opportunity for the committee to discuss how certain parties, particularly labor unions, exploit public participation in the CEQA process to achieve objectives unrelated to environmental protection.

Assemblywoman Grove cited four specific examples of different unions (the Teamsters, the California Nurses Association, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Service Employees International Union) filing CEQA lawsuits to delay projects as leverage to extract labor concessions from businesses:

  • In 2011, the Teamsters union filed a CEQA lawsuit against VWR International, a distributor of laboratory supplies. The union, in an attempt to intimidate VWR International into signing a union labor agreement at a proposed new facility in Visalia, is using CEQA to allege that trucks entering and exiting the facility will harm the environment. This large facility is likely to employ more than 100 people in a county that has an unemployment rate over 15% and desperately needs jobs, yet there are truckers trying to stop the use of trucks! And this is after an EIR has already been approved for the process.
  • In 2009, the California Nurses Association sued Alameda County under the pretense that the county did not comply with CEQA in approving a project to demolish the deficient Eden Medical Center Hospital and other buildings and replace them with a new state of the art hospital and medical office complex. The nurses’ union did not want Sutter Health to close the San Leandro Hospital and reduce the number of beds at the Eden Medical Center. Here we see nurses protesting against a state-of-the-art new hospital.
  • The Service Employees International Union filed a CEQA lawsuit in 2007 to stop construction of Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills and a CEQA lawsuit in 2006 to stop construction of Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento. Both of these lawsuits occurred in the context of SEIU organizing campaigns.
  • The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been behind numerous CEQA lawsuits filed by a Davis lawyer against proposed Wal-Mart projects in Northern California. These lawsuits are related to unions concerns over non-signatory competition for grocery sales.

Testifying on behalf of my former employer (Associated Builders and Contractors of California), I discussed how certain construction trade unions abuse CEQA as a weapon to delay projects until the owner agrees to require contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions. The Western Electrical Contractors Association (WECA) and the Chambers of Commerce Alliance of Ventura & Santa Barbara were the other public supporters of the bill.

Assemblywoman Linda Halderman (R-Fresno) cited the specific example of a union using CEQA to try to force a contractor to sign a Project Labor Agreement to install solar panels at Fresno-Yosemite International Airport. Assemblyman Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) adeptly exposed the Attorney General’s double standard of opposing the additional responsibilities assigned in AB 598 while remaining silent about adopting additional responsibilities through other legislation.

Legitimate environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League opposed the bill. The Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union opposed the bill in writing but did not speak at the hearing. Democrats on the committee opposed the bill, but some of them (along with the Attorney General’s office) acknowledged that some parties abuse CEQA. Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Santa Cruz) said nothing about how the Carpenters union used CEQA in a recent high-profile campaign to delay and ultimately derail the proposed La Bahia Hotel in Santa Cruz.

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.

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