Exposing the Plot Behind Project Labor Agreement for California Bullet Train

Documents obtained on April 29, 2013 through a request under the authority of the California Public Records Act reveal behind-the-scenes maneuvering for a government mandate that construction companies sign a Project Labor Agreement with the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California as a condition of building California’s High-Speed Rail.

Getting these records was not a simple task. The appointed board of directors of the California High-Speed Rail Authority never discussed or voted on this union monopoly. The Project Labor Agreement materialized out of nowhere in late December 2012 as Addendum 8 in the bid specifications for the first construction segment from Madera to Fresno.

For reasons still to be publicly revealed, obscure Fresno-based appointed boards and quasi-public groups interacted with federal and state officials to develop the Project Labor Agreement for what will be the most expensive public works project in human history. It was the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board that possessed many of the key documents. So far only one elected official has been identified as a direct player in the scheme: Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

Here’s what is available and known to the public as of April 30, 2013.

In November 2009, the California High-Speed Rail Authority requested “expressions of interest” from local governments for a $40 million heavy maintenance facility somewhere from Merced to Bakersfield that would employ up to 1500 workers during peak shifts. The County of Fresno, the City of Fresno, the Economic Development Corporation in Fresno County, and the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board organized a consortium called “Fresno Works” to compete for the facility against cities such as Merced, Chowchilla, and Bakersfield.

At some point this Fresno Works consortium appeared to expand its interests to include getting a requirement for high-speed rail contractors to hire people from areas of the Central Valley where unemployment is high. In September 2011, the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board recommended to the Fresno Works consortium that the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) implement a “Targeted Unemployed Worker” Program and “First Source” transparency requirement for contractors working on the California High-Speed Rail project.

The board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority discussed the proposal at its January 12, 2012 meeting. (Board member Tom Richards was also serving as chairman of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board and removed himself from the board discussion.) It was already moot because a letter dated January 6, 2012 from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Federal Railroad Administration to the California High Speed Rail Authority indicated that the proposed workforce requirements violated rules concerning the use of federal grants for construction projects.

Nothing was mentioned about labor unions or Project Labor Agreements in this proposal. California High-Speed Rail Authority board member Bob Balgenorth, who was also head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, inquired during discussion on whether or not construction trade union officials had been consulted and noted that the proposal did not seem to recognize that union hiring halls typically dispatch workers directly to the job site and not to an employer’s office.

Work apparently resumed in Fresno to develop a targeted hiring program that would meet federal contracting standards. In a memorandum to the California High Speed Rail Authority dated March 21, 2012,  the co-chairman of the Education Committee of the Fresno Works Consortium (who was also the executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board) proposed a set of revised “Targeted Unemployed Worker” Hire Criteria and “First Source” Transparency Requirements.

Here for the first time were references to unions. It stated that hiring criteria “be reflective of union apprenticeship requirements” and that “if a project labor agreement is negotiated to cover this project, such an agreement shall include a provision requiring the parties to adhere to this Targeted Unemployed Worker Program.” Obviously, someone had proposed (or demanded) a union Project Labor Agreement.

An opportunity soon came to propose combining a targeted hiring policy (albeit without local hiring requirements) with a union Project Labor Agreement. Sometime during the following three months, word reached Fresno that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Federal Transit Administration had given approval in February 2012 to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to require contractors to sign the new Project Labor Agreement for its massive construction program. Using this approval as the basis for her argument, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin sent a letter dated June 19, 2012 to Ray LaHood, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, seeking approval for a revised hiring program for the California High-Speed Rail Authority:

…it has come to my attention that Mr. Dorvel R. Carter, Chief Counsel of the Federal Transit Administration, approved language put forward by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Administration (sic) (LACMTA) and the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council which is very similar to the Fresno Works targeted hiring program. This language focuses on establishing targeted hiring criteria in project labor agreements…we have modified our initial proposal to more closely comport with the LACMTA language that has been approved by USDOT-FTA and respectfully request that USDOT work with us to institute this revised proposed, the “National Targeted Hiring Program,” for the Initial Construction Section of the California High Speed Rail program…I look forward to discussing it with you and your team at your earliest convenience.

While mentioning some conditions and caveats, a letter from the head of the Federal Railroad Administration at “Secretary LaHood’s request” dated June 29, 2012 assured Mayor Swearengin that “we would respect the choices of CHSRA in adopting a variation of a targeted hiring program so long as the program is consistent with the California state procurement policies and procedures that CHSRA uses in the expenditure of its non-Federal funds.”

The general counsel for the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board then produced a legal analysis of a revised Fresno Works consortium proposal for a ”National Targeted Hiring Program” that would win federal approval. He noted that a similar hiring program was approved by the Federal Transit Administration as included in a Project Labor Agreement that contractors must sign to work on projects of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Representatives of the Fresno Works consortium and the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board – including Chuck Riojas, the head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local No. 100 in Fresno – then made a presentation about the new proposal at the November 14 board meeting of the California High Speed Rail Authority. No references were made to a Project Labor Agreement, and Mr. Riojas of the IBEW official even asserted that “This isn’t I’d like to stress a union or non-union document” and that apprentices from non-union programs could get on-the-job training opportunities under the proposal. (These claims turned out to be false when the final version of the proposal was adopted in the context of a Project Labor Agreement.)

At their following meeting on December 8, the California High Speed Rail Authority board approved a “Community Benefits Policy” meant to adopt guidelines for a targeted hiring program. Again, there were no references in the policy to unions or a Project Labor Agreement.

Then, in late December, the California High Speed Rail Authority issued Addendum 8 for the bid specifications for the first construction segment from Madera to Fresno. Contractors would now be required to sign a “Community Benefits Agreement.” The so-called Community Benefits Agreement turned out to be a typical Project Labor Agreement negotiated with the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, with the goals of the targeted hiring program inserted in it.

Unless you were part of the inner circle working behind-the-scenes on this scheme, you would have no way of knowing that union officials were using a benevolent-sounding, locally-motivated targeted hiring program as their vehicle to gain monopoly control of construction for California High Speed Rail. References to a Project Labor Agreement only appeared in passing in internal letters and documents for obscure local appointed boards and quasi-public organizations in Fresno. The board of the California High Speed Rail Authority never discussed a Project Labor Agreement or voted on it. The public was kept uninformed, for obvious reasons.

So far the only elected official implicated in the scheme is Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who was prodded by someone to send the pivotal letter to a top Obama Administration official asking for federal approval to require contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement for California High Speed Rail. That’s where the plot can be exposed in greater detail. Here are questions for Mayor Swearengin that need to come from Fresno citizens and all parties interested in California High Speed Rail:

1. How did you find out about the Project Labor Agreement with the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority requires contractors to sign as a condition of work?

2. Who asked you to send the letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking for approval for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to use a targeted hiring program in the context of a Project Labor Agreement? Who wrote the letter?

3. Which union officials contacted your office related to the targeted hiring program and the Project Labor Agreement?

4. Why did you send the letter from your office instead of more appropriately referring the subject to the California High-Speed Rail Authority?

5. Was your letter part of some sort of deal related to union lobbying for selecting Fresno as the location for the California High-Speed Rail Heavy Maintenance Facility?

6. The City of Fresno municipal code prohibits the city from requiring contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions as a condition of work. Did you keep this letter from exposure to the public because you knew it asked for something contrary to the principles established in your city’s own laws?

The California High-Speed Rail Authority and its appointed board members have earned a reputation for a lack of transparency and accountability, and as long as it gets taxpayer money, it can continue this practice with impunity. But with relentless public pressure on elected officials who are supposed to be accountable to the people, the complete story of the Project Labor Agreement on the California High-Speed Rail will eventually come out, to the shame and detriment of everyone involved in the sneaky scheme.

Background and Sources:

Project Labor Agreement for California High-Speed Rail

Analysis of the Phony Community Benefits and Other Provisions in the Union Project Labor Agreement for the First Segment of California’s High-Speed Rail -www.LaborIssuesSolutions.com – January 11, 2013

Community Benefits Policy for California High-Speed Rail

Project Labor Agreement for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Construction Careers Policy for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board (FRWIB) Board of Directors

Fresno Works Consortium

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin

Origin of Fresno Works Consortium, established to win selection of Fresno to be site of California High-Speed Rail Heavy Maintenance Facility

California High-Speed Rail Authority January 12, 2012 Board Meeting Agenda Item #3 – Presentation of Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board

Transcript of January 12, 2012 Board Meeting for California High-Speed Rail Authority

January 6, 2012 Federal Railroad Administration Letter – California High-Speed Rail – Targeted Hiring

March 21, 2012 Fresno Works Consortium Revised Targeted Hiring Program for California High-Speed Rail

June 19, 2012 Letter from Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to Federal Railroad Administration – Inquiry on Applying Project Labor Agreement to California High-Speed Rail

June 29, 2012 Letter from Federal Railroad Administration to Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin on Targeted Hiring Program for California High-Speed Rail

August 8, 2012 Legal Analysis for Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board of California High-Speed Rail Targeted Hiring Program

Transcript of November 14, 2012 Board Meeting for California High-Speed Rail Authority – Hints of Project Labor Agreement

January 17, 2013 Letter from Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) National Office to Federal Railroad Administration on California High-Speed Rail Project Labor Agreement

March 26, 2012 Letter from Federal Railroad Administration to Associated Builders and Contractors on California High-Speed Rail Project Labor Agreement

April 11, 2013 Letter from Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board – Public Documents – Process Leading to Project Labor Agreement on California High-Speed Rail

California High-Speed Rail Authority Keeps Union Deal Out of Public Forums – my article in www.FlashReport.org – February 10, 2013

www.CaliforniaHighSpeedRailScam.com – your centralized source for key information about the debacle that is the California High-Speed Passenger Train for the 21st Century.


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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