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Construction Unions Should Fight for Infrastructure that Helps the Economy

One primary reason California has the highest cost-of-living (and cost of doing business) in America, combined with a crumbling infrastructure, is because California’s construction unions have allied themselves with environmental extremists and crony “green” capitalists, instead of fighting for what might actually help their state.

California’s construction unions ought to take a look around the rest of the country, where thousands of jobs are being created in the energy industries – really good jobs – doing something that actually helps ordinary people. Because the natural gas revolution unleashed in North Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio is creating thousands of jobs in those states at the same time as it lowers the cost of energy for consumers who struggle to make ends meet.

More generally, construction unions should remember that it is not only how much their own members earn that matters, but how much things cost everyone. If things cost less, you can make less yet enjoy the same standard of living. When unions fight for high paying jobs on projects that are useless, they only help themselves. When they fight for projects – such as natural gas development – that lower the cost of energy, they are helping everyone.

The California Public Policy Center released a new study this week entitled “The Benefits and Costs of Oil and Gas Development in California,” written by Dr. Tim Considine, an energy economist with the University of Wyoming. In the study, Considine estimates the recoverable reserves of shale oil in the South San Joaquin Valley to total 15 billion barrels, with another 10 billion barrels offshore in the Santa Barbara Channel, accessible now from land-based wells using slant drilling. At $100 a barrel, this is $2.5 trillion worth of oil. And where there’s oil, there’s gas – over 12 trillion cubic feet just offshore in the Santa Barbara channel. What are we waiting for?

Developing these sources of energy over the next 25 years in California, according to Considine, could create up to 500,000 high paying jobs in the energy industry and inject hundreds of billions of tax revenue into the state’s government. When are California’s construction unions going to fight for something that actually helps all Californians?

Instead, apparently, they are lobbying hand in hand with environmental extremists for a “Bullet Train” that almost nobody will ever ride – costing taxpayers over $100 billion so it can operate at a loss – and “Delta Tunnels” that will cost tens of billions and not increase the supply of fresh water in California by so much as one drop.

Can unions themselves be guilty of “labor malpractice”? Because unions are supposed to fight for the interests of ordinary people. They are not supposed to join hands with rich, elitist, misanthropic environmentalist fanatics who live in wealthy coastal enclaves, who would be thrilled if gasoline cost over $10.00 a gallon, and electricity rates were over $1.00 per kilowatt-hour. That’s where we’re headed in California if construction labor doesn’t wake up and fight for ordinary people.

Here are two visions of California’s infrastructure priorities:

(1) Spend $150 billion on a bullet train that almost nobody rides and operates at a loss, and build two “delta tunnels” that do not result in one drop of additional water storage or supply. Prohibit development of any fossil fuel reserves in California. Finance this prodigious waste of money through increasing taxes along with proceeds from “carbon emissions auctions” that enrich Wall Street billionaires and crony “green” capitalists. Continue to neglect California’s infrastructure.

(2) Develop California’s energy resources using private financing, creating hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs, generating hundreds of billions in tax revenue, and lowering the cost of energy to consumers. Use proceeds to help finance infrastructure investments that benefit all Californians:
–  New aquifer and surface water storage.
–  Desalination plants on the Southern California coast.
–  New power stations – natural gas and nuclear.
–  New natural gas pipelines connecting California to the rest of North America.
–  A liquid natural gas terminal off the Central California coast.
–  Upgraded freeways, bridges, and existing rail corridors.

Which of these visions delivers prosperity to the most people? Which creates more jobs for members of construction unions? Which reflects truly beneficial infrastructure priorities for California?

California’s construction unions have thousands of members who want to build and produce real assets. This distinguishes them from public sector unions, who have an incentive to deny infrastructure spending because it takes tax revenue out of their own pockets. Public sector unions use environmentalist extremists for cover – it justifies them keeping public funds for their pay and benefits instead of investing in infrastructure. There is NO identity of interests between public sector unions and construction unions, other than a residual ideological affinity that falls apart under logical examination.

Perhaps it is time for California’s construction unions, joined by people of conscience from all unions, to care more about all of California’s workers. Perhaps it is possible for construction union leadership to agree to disagree with union reformers on the issue of open shops vs closed shops, or project labor agreements vs. free and open competition, and at least recognize together that environmentalist extremists have too much power in California. They should be challenged, before more money we don’t have is spent on projects we don’t need, simply because it was politically feasible and created a handful of jobs.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center

RELATED POSTS

Bipartisan Solutions For California, October 27, 2013

Forming a Bipartisan Consensus for Public Sector Union Reform, January 28, 2014

Bipartisan Solutions for California

When examining policy options that might help restore a financially sustainable public sector, reformers tend to focus on what may be politely referred to as austerity programs. And no effective package of reforms can ignore austerity measures; cutting government programs, cutting government staff, and cutting government employee compensation. At the same time, an essential element in such an austerity program would be new rules to change the political landscape – in particular, legislation to curb the power of public sector unions whose agenda intrinsically favors bigger government.

Focusing on austerity alone, however, not only condemns many useful government programs and virtually all government workers to an unpalatable fate, but it is insufficient to revitalize overall economic growth. Accompanying any package of austerity measures must be a package of prosperity oriented measures. These include, predictably, creating a more business-friendly regulatory environment. But they also should include public/private infrastructure projects, strict new laws designed to break up monopolies and promote competition among very large corporations, and a relaxed permitting process for land, energy and resource development. All of these prosperity measures must share a common priority – to lower the cost of living. This not only makes austerity measures affordable, but it frees up public capital to reduce debt and make smart infrastructure investments, and it frees up private capital to innovate and invest in entirely new industries.

Here, in more detail, are solutions for California that combine both austerity and prosperity:

(1) Balance State and Local Government Budgets:

(a) Lower the wages of all state and local government workers by 20% of whatever amount they make in excess of $50,000 per year. Lower the wages of all state and local government workers by 50% of whatever amount they make in excess of $100,000 per year. Include in “wages” ALL forms of compensation.

(b) Solve the financial crisis facing pensions by imposing special tax assessments on state and local government pensions in the amount of 50% of all pension payments in excess of $60,000 per year and 75% of all pension payments in excess of $100,000 per year. Adopt the same reformed  financial rules governing pension liability estimates that already apply to private sector pension plans.

(c) Require 75% of all K-12 and Community College employees to be teachers in a classroom.

(d) Faithfully implement the federal welfare reforms already adopted by most other states in 1996 during the Clinton administration.

(2) Change the Rules in Sacramento:

(a) Implement fundamental curbs on the rights of public sector unions, including:  Grant all public sector workers the right to opt-out of union membership and payment of any union dues including agency fees. Prohibit government payroll departments from collecting union dues. Allow all public sector employees to negotiate their own wages and benefits and not be bound by collective bargaining terms if they wish. Prohibit public sector unions from negotiating over long term benefits, and require all current wage and benefit agreements to expire at the end of the term for the elected officials who approved the agreements. Prohibit public sector unions from engaging in political activity of any kind.

(b) Discontinue California’s “CO2 auctions,” which are nothing more than a way to redistribute money from middle class ratepayers to bankers, crony green entrepreneurs, and public sector payroll departments. Repeal AB32. Crucially, lift the crippling burden of land use regulations that keep the prices of homes and commercial property artificially high in California.

(c) Revisit all business-friendly recommendations made by business associations such as the bipartisan California Chamber of Commerce. This would not include compromise positions in support of public sector unions and crony capitalist environmental regulations. This would include banning mandatory project labor agreements or requiring union only contractors on government funded projects.

(3) Use government surpluses to engage in public works, and streamline permitting for private infrastructure investments, that LOWER the cost of living for everyone:

(a) Rebuild California’s aqueducts and develop additional aquifer and surface storage for runoff harvesting. Build desalination plants on the southern California coast. Upgrade existing dams and pumping stations. Permit farmers to contract with California’s urban water districts to sell their water allocations. Create water abundance and make water cheap.

(b) Build new power stations. Whether this is a joint project with Nevada to establish nuclear power stations in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain, or building new natural gas fired power plants, the immediate establishment of an additional 20%+ of generating capacity in California would result in significant lowering of utility rates and make California a net exporter of electricity.

(c) Permit development of offshore oil and gas using slant drilling from land. It is no longer necessary to develop offshore drilling rigs to extract energy reserves. There are cost-effective ways to bring this energy onshore without the risk of an oil spill from an offshore platform.

(d) Permit development of natural gas and shale oil reserves in California.

(e) Permit development of new mines and quarries in California.

(f) Build additional pipeline capacity into California to import and export natural gas to and from elsewhere in North America.

(g) Permit development of a liquid natural gas terminal off the California coast. Get California onto the global LNG grid to import and export natural gas and further diversify sources of energy and income. Create energy abundance and make energy cheap.

(h) Upgrade existing roads, bridges, and freeways. Begin working on “smart lanes” that will facilitate cars and mass transit vehicles driving on autopilot.

(i) Instead of developing a bullet train – something that might be worth experimenting with once everything else on this list is done and Californians have surplus money – upgrade California’s existing freight and passenger rail infrastructure. When practical, integrate passenger and freight service on common rail corridors in large cities where high population densities make passenger rail economically viable. Increase the speed of intercity passenger rail to 100+ MPH, which can be done on upgraded but already existing track. Improve the interstate rail links emanating from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, to help them remain competitive.

Implementing policies designed to lower the cost of living is a perilous undertaking. Because it involves increasing the supply of all basic commodities and services including housing, energy, water and transportation, it can lower asset values and profits in those sectors and can contribute to a deflationary economy. But by lowering the cost of living, despite how pay and benefit cuts may affect public sector workers, and despite existing downward pressure on compensation that affects private sector workers employed by corporations competing in the global economy, the overall standard of living may actually improve.

During the 21st century there are two competing models of economic growth. The path California is on involves artificially inflating the prices of all basic commodities. Staying on this path will reduce global competition, empower entrenched global elites, and consolidate the power of public sector unions, monopolistic corporations, and global bankers. Economic growth will be slower, and in terms of genuine productivity, it will be an anti-competitive age of control by the few over the many, and a sad utilization of the great technological advances we have seen in recent decades.

The alternative economic model for California is to adopt policies that dismantle monopolies, nurture competition, and encourage new development of land and resources. If costs for basic commodities are lowered instead of raised, capital is released to finance completely new industries, from robotics and space commercialization to life-extension and other fundamental advances in medicine. This will cause rapid and sustainable economic growth, unprecedented per-capita prosperity, and even faster technological advancement. Because California enjoys so many gifts – natural resources of almost unparalleled abundance and diversity, and an economy that is the technological leader in the world – the solutions described here, though painful, may ensure California survives and thrives during what are sure to be challenging years ahead.