California Needs Infrastructure, and Unions Should be Helping
“Infrastructure” is a perennial topic that enters and leaves California’s public consciousness in the following manner: A politician says “we must rebuild our crumbling infrastructure,” journalists report it, almost nothing is done, and the infrastructure continues to crumble. The talking point is made. Check the box. Repeat. Decades pass.
If you’ve driven west on Interstate 580 from California’s central valley into the San Francisco Bay Area, “infrastructure” becomes more than a hard-to-pronounce, sort of awkward sounding four syllable word that emanates from the mouths of politicians every election cycle. Because the divots, pot-holes, fissures and bumps on Interstate 580 west are impossible to ignore. The road is literally falling apart.
It isn’t enough to marvel at how Californians tolerate this negligence. Because it harms our quality of life. Today the failure is measured in terms of how many cars and trucks require far more frequent maintenance to repair their battered suspensions because we can’t fix our roads. Today it’s short showers and annoying light switches that turn off automatically because we won’t build new water and power infrastructure. But tomorrow it could be a catastrophe, as entire regions are potentially denied water, power or transportation, because over time, less and less viable infrastructure became critical to supporting more and more people.
Why? Why have California’s policymakers paid lip service to infrastructure for the last 20-30 years, all the while watching it crumble? Here are three reasons:
(1) Environmentalists provide the moral cover for neglect. There isn’t a road, a bridge, a power plant, a port upgrade, new housing, a water treatment plant – not one scratch in the ground that isn’t bitterly contested by the environmentalist lobby. Powerful environmentalist organizations, often receiving government funds, with opportunistic trial lawyers populating their boards of directors, have an incentive to tie every possible infrastructure investment up in knots. While some environmental oversight is necessary, the challenge of complying with every environmentalist objection deters all but the wealthiest corporations, and creates costly delays that last for decades.
(2) Many corporate special interests benefit from neglect. Corporations who own existing sources of supply can charge higher prices and generate higher profits. Utilities are the obvious examples of this – ever since “decoupling” legislation was passed in California, the only way utilities can generate higher profits is to raise unit costs, since unit output and profit percentages are fixed by law. So if water costs $2.00 per CCU instead of $0.25, or if electricity costs $0.50 per KWH instead of $0.05, utility companies make a killing for their shareholders. Similarly, owners of land that has finally been approved for development, or quarries that got operating permits before the regulations made them prohibitive, are able to sell their inventory at fantastic markups.
(3) Public sector unions also benefit from infrastructure neglect. Taxpayer funds that ought to be paying to construct and upgrade roads and bridges end up being allocated instead to pay government workers higher salaries and fund generous pensions. These unions also benefit from the legislated and entirely artificial scarcity that drives up prices for land and homes, because it increases property tax revenue. And of course, every additional environmentalist inspired regulation and code means more unionized government inspectors and enforcement officers can be hired. Government over-management and mismanagement always benefits public sector unions.
So where is California’s private sector labor movement when it comes to infrastructure? Here is a quote from the California Labor Federation’s website, under “Advocacy / Key Issues.” Revealingly, this is number ten of ten on their “issues” page:
“Invest in California’s Infrastructure: We must have a comprehensive strategy for making investments in infrastructure and a sustainable, equitable way to finance them. We need to restore our public transportation systems, modernize our rail system and rebuild our roads and waterways. We must double our efforts to build high speed rail in California.”
Apart from “high speed rail,” a project that fails to justify itself under any rational cost/benefit analysis, this all sounds good. But where’s the follow up?
When scoping meetings are held to approve infrastructure projects, whether it is widening a highway, approving a new subdivision, repairing a bridge, or building the Temperance Flat or Sites reservoirs, where are the unions? Why aren’t hundreds of them showing up two hours early to these meetings, elbowing the environmentalist trial lawyers and their zealous puppets out of the room? Why aren’t they packing the out-of-control California Air Resources Board meetings to show solidarity with the workers in dairies, agriculture, manufacturing, mining and timber, trucking, and countless other industries who employ hundreds of thousands of Californians?
Instead California’s labor unions typically resort to “greenmail,” a tactic that goes as follows: Pick a project that the environmentalist lobby doesn’t actually object to, then sue the developer on environmentalist grounds until they concede to enact a project labor agreement, than drop the lawsuit.
Is this the best they can do?
California’s private sector labor movement should consider how environmentalism, married with the special interests of monopolistic corporations, allied with government labor whose agenda is utterly different than their own, have destroyed literally millions of good jobs in this state. They should consider how close California is to becoming an authoritarian wasteland, where land, water, energy, housing and transportation are cynically rationed by this alliance of oligarchs and elitists. They need to wake up and fight for their core principles – the welfare of workers and their families.
An essential point that union leaders and their members ought to understand is the cost of building infrastructure in California is prohibitive for reasons that go far beyond paying a prevailing wage, or even the cost of hiring a few extra employees on a project to comply with union work rules. The costs are prohibitive because oligarchs and elitists have colluded to make every element of a project more expensive – the land, power, materials, transportation, staging, permits, and time-delays. The compounding effect of these pernicious barriers have enriched oligarchs, government workers, and the trial lawyers representing the environmentalists. They’ve made the rest of us poorer, and they’re the real reason we don’t have more good jobs.
To take one dramatic example, consider the Carlsbad desalination plant, which – not even including distribution pipes to move the water into the municipal supply – was built at at a capital cost of $12,733 per acre foot of annual capacity. Compare that to the Sorek desalination plant, completed in Israel in 2013 at a capital cost of $4,111 per acre foot of annual capacity, less than one-third as much! This was accomplished in a nation where labor is not cheap, nor is the government a paragon of free market deregulation. This is not an isolated case.
It is a crime against all Californians that other developed nations can build infrastructure for less than one-third what it costs here, and that other states in the U.S. can build infrastructure for less than half what it costs in California. Labor costs occupy a dwindling percentage of what infrastructure projects cost, which means that unions should start lobbying aggressively for infrastructure investment, instead of playing petty greenmail games. They may not win every project labor agreement battle. But they will win the war to create millions of good new jobs, and change California from a land of authoritarian scarcity back into a land of opportunity and abundance.
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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.
California’s Misguided Water Conservation Priorities, August 17, 2016
The Alternative to Crony Capitalism and Phony Shortages, June 15, 2016
Government Unions and the Financialization of America, May 24, 2016
California’s Economically Illiterate Legislature, April 5, 2016
Practical Reforms to “Right-Size” Government Unions, March 29, 2016
Investing in Infrastructure to Lower the Cost of Living, March 14, 2016
The Future of Unions in the Post-Scalia Era, February 16, 2016
In Search of a Legitimate Labor Movement, January 19, 2016
The Alliance Between Wall Street and Public Unions, December 1, 2015
Why Aren’t Unions Fighting California’s Bullet Train Boondoggle?, November 24, 2015
When Will Unions Fight to Lower the Cost of Living?, October 27, 2015
Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions, April 7, 2015
Raise the Minimum Wage, or Lower the Cost of Living?, March 31, 2015
The Abundance Choice, December 24, 2014
An Economic Win-Win For California – Lower the Cost of Living, December 3, 2014
How to Create Affordable Abundance in California, July 1, 2014
California’s Green Bantustans, May 21, 2014