An Insider Candidly Interprets the Divisiveness of a Local Union Initiative

An Insider Candidly Interprets the Divisiveness of a Local Union Initiative

Over the past 15 years, local elected officials in California have frequently claimed publicly and privately that union Project Labor Agreement mandates for taxpayer-funded construction contracts are the most intense, time-consuming, and divisive issues they’ve ever considered.

When Project Labor Agreements are placed on local government meeting agendas, modern records are often broken for the number of speakers at meetings of that particular government. Meetings stretch for several hours as factions argue and attack each other over whether or not unions should control the workforce for lucrative construction contracts worth millions or even billions of dollars. The excitement and controversy attracts the attention of news media. Local business, community, and political leaders exert their own pressure on elected officials. Routine business (such as educational policy) is suspended as board members and staff try to understand, navigate, or sidestep the arcane policy arena of construction labor issues.

Personal written confirmation about the agonies of considering a Project Labor Agreement mandate was recently provided by one of ten applicants for a vacancy on the board of the Alameda Unified School District. He was a board member of the San Gabriel Unified School District when it voted on a Project Labor Agreement mandate in 2010. Here is some background about that fight, followed by his own perspective of what caused the divisiveness.

In 2009, the Los Angeles-Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council began pushing a Project Labor Agreement proposal at the San Gabriel Unified School District (located just east of Los Angeles). The board was split on the proposal.

When the Project Labor Agreement was publicly introduced for board consideration, a large and vocal group in San Gabriel organized to oppose it. The group was led by influential community leaders who had supported the bond measure in the 2008 election and were outraged to see outside special interests interfere with the traditional bidding process and raise the cost of construction.

Union representatives made a formal presentation in support of the Project Labor Agreement at the February 2, 2010 board meeting. Then opponents of the Project Labor Agreement were scheduled to make a formal presentation at the April 6 board meeting.

Well in advance of the meeting, union activists from throughout the Los Angeles area occupied the meeting room seats and effectively prevented numerous San Gabriel residents opposed to the PLA from entering. At one point there was a ruckus outside the room as angry people clamored to squeeze into the meeting room while police tried to limit the number of people in the room to the legal capacity. The board chairwoman (opposed to the Project Labor Agreement) fruitlessly asked if out-of-town attendees would be willing to give up their seats.

The board voted 3-2 to place a resolution on the next meeting agenda to direct staff to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement with the Los Angeles-Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council. The board then approved the resolution on a 3-2 vote on April 20.

Despite continued opposition from community leaders and a flurry of mailers to residents criticizing the proposal, the board ended up voting 3-2 on November 1o, 2010 in front of approximately 100 irate residents to give the unions their desired Project Labor Agreement.

The most aggressive proponent of the union deal was Scott Svonkin, who had ambitions to run for the board of the Los Angeles Community College District (where he is now board president). Another board member who voted for the deal was Phillip Hu, although he was more measured and civil in expressing his position.

Five years later, Hu would cite his experience with the Project Labor Agreement fight as a qualification as he sought an appointment to the Alameda Unified School District board. Here is the excerpt from his application, dated January 8, 2015.

Phillip Hu Statement on PLA

This interpretation insinuates that the elected board’s discord over the Project Labor Agreement and the community objections  to it were based on class consciousness. An older, wealthier white establishment opposed a government policy that guaranteed jobs to workers represented by unions that defend the interests of working class immigrants and non-white residents. Residents who were paying for the construction with their taxes were resisting redistribution of wealth under a just system.

Hu does not address arguments against the Project Labor Agreement based on phrases and words such as “fiscal responsibility,” “freedom of choice,” “fair and open competition,” and “merit.” It would be interesting to see if he regards these words as intellectual cover for the selfish interests of the “more affluent, more homogenized, the traditional power base.”

Note that Hu may have a predisposition to see the world through the lens of “class consciousness.” In his application for the Alameda Unified School District board, Hu identifies himself as Government Affairs Director/Communications Director of Public Employees Union Local No. 1.

***As I prepared to hit the Publish button for this post, a Tweet from Alameda Unified School District announced that the board selected Phillip Hu to fill the vacancy. Seven months after moving to Alameda, Mr. Hu is poised to vote for another Project Labor Agreement. (In November 2014, voters approved Measure I and authorized the district to borrow $179.5 million for school construction via bond sales.)


Full application of Phillip Hu for the Alameda Unified School District board vacancy

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 Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

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