Stopping the union political agenda on the state and local level in California entails the grinding, boring mundanity of ordinary grassroots organizing. It’s unglamorous. It’s not financially rewarding. And it certainly doesn’t enhance the professional or community reputation of anyone doing it.
But it often works, as shown on May 15, 2013, when the elected board of trustees of the Coast Community College District in Orange County voted 3-2 to reject a proposed union Project Labor Agreement.
In November 2012, 57.2% of voters in the Coast Community College District approved Measure M, which authorized the college district to borrow $698 million for construction by selling bonds to investors. (Under the conditions of Proposition 39 approved by California voters in 2000, these bond sales won approval with 55% – not 66.67% – of the vote.)
In total, the construction program at the Coast Community College District will be $1.5 billion when state matching grants (also funded through bond sales) and other sources of funding are added. That’s a lot of responsibility for an elected community college board whose members are generally unknown to the public and get virtually no press coverage of their meetings and decisions.
Residents of this college district are relatively educated, affluent, and engaged in their communities: the district includes Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Westminster, and part of Garden Grove. Nevertheless, few people – including the local news media – were paying much attention to this bond measure and the activities of the elected college board of trustees who would oversee it.
With one of the Democrat board members (Jim Moreno) considering a campaign to run for the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 2014, and only one Republican among the five board members, perhaps this district should have been regarded as a target for union infiltration. As it turned out, the Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council was very interested in this college and its $1.5 billion in upcoming construction work.
After voters approved Measure M, construction union lobbyists began quietly working behind the scenes to get the college to require contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions as a condition of working on college construction projects. Two successive board agendas included discussion of the proposal, which was cleverly disguised as a innocuous-sounding “Continuity of Work Agreement.”
It’s possible the Coast Community College District would have ended up adopting a Project Labor Agreement if someone hadn’t snickered at the phony “Continuity of Work Agreement” now in place at the Pasadena Unified School District and decided to initiate a web search to see if unions were using this deceptive euphemism for Project Labor Agreements anywhere else in California. The web search pulled up meeting agendas for the board of trustees of the Coast Community College District. Meeting minutes revealed that union officials and their two political sycophants on the board of trustees (Jim Moreno and Jerry Patterson) were aggressively pushing for the college district to impose this costly union monopoly on its construction program. At the same time, no one was providing any opposing viewpoints during public comments or in written material.
How could this union plot be stopped with such late notice? Local opponents of Project Labor Agreements realized that a solid majority of voters in this college district support fair and open bid competition and oppose costly union monopolies on taxpayer-funded construction projects. In addition, opponents recognized that voters would have handily rejected Measure M if the college had admitted before the election that it planned to mandate a Project Labor Agreement. After all, it barely won.
For opponents, stopping the advancing union proposal focused on alerting the public that union lobbyists were trying to get control of the work through special favors from their friends in government. The obscure Coast Community College District board of trustees needed to become accountable to the public instead of union officials. This strategy was quickly implemented:
- Door-to-Door Education of Voters: Young Republican activists distributed flyers to voters exposing the two elected board members pushing the Project Labor Agreement on behalf of unions and at the expense of taxpayers. These flyers greatly agitated the two board members, who apparently never expected the public to hold them responsible for pushing a costly union sweetheart deal.
- Phone Calls to Educate Voters: Voters received phone calls informing them about the two elected board members pushing the Project Labor Agreement on behalf of unions and at the expense of taxpayers.
- Traditional News Media: Through articles, editorials, letters to the editor, and op-ed commentaries, local newspapers informed readers about what their elected college officials were planning to do with their tax money.
- Web-Based News Media: Local and state political news blogs and other web sites with an orientation toward principles of economic freedom highlighted what was happening.
- Social Media: Emails and other more traditional forms of communication circulated among political activists supportive of fiscal responsibility and economic freedom. A YouTube video was posted. A few political activists used Twitter to notify the public about the board’s consideration of a Project Labor Agreement.
- Civic Leadership: A few courageous local elected officials (such as Huntington Beach City Councilmember Matt Harper) risked stirring up union ire by speaking out publicly against the Project Labor Agreement. The Orange County Business Council also opposed the Project Labor Agreement.
- Taxpayer Groups: The Orange County Taxpayers Association was particularly outraged about the proposed Project Labor Agreement, because this group had endorsed Measure M based in part on a commitment from the college that it would not require contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions as a condition of work. The credibility of the Orange County Taxpayers Association as a watchdog group for taxpayers was in jeopardy, and the group made sure the college and its elected board of trustees were made accountable for their plan to renege on their election season pledge. The Costa Mesa Taxpayers Association also opposed the Project Labor Agreement.
- Business Groups: the Southern California Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) organized local construction companies to oppose the proposed Project Labor Agreement and ensured that opposing viewpoints were presented at board meetings. Other construction associations also opposed the Project Labor Agreement with written material and public statements.
- Political Groups: the Newport Mesa Tea Party recognized the proposed Project Labor Agreement as an attack on fiscal responsibility. It issued a press release against the proposal, and members spoke out against it at the May 15 board meeting in defiance of a room full of union officials.
- Student Groups: student governmental groups and the student representative to the college board of trustees opposed the Project Labor Agreement. They didn’t like how professional union operatives were interfering with a construction program meant to provide students with better facilities.
As voters in the district learned about the plot for a union Project Labor Agreement, this quiet community college became mired in a well-publicized political controversy that distracted from its mission to provide a quality education to its students. Three of the five board members decided to resist the unnecessary, costly, union-driven contracting mandate. Surely public awareness and rejection of the Project Labor Agreement provided extra confidence for board members to take a position against an aggressive special interest group.
The Coast Community College District victory should inspire Californians concerned about inappropriate union political power in their community. You can make a difference:
- Monitor the meeting agendas and meeting minutes of some of your obscure local governments.
- Become familiar with the business of these local governments and identify and track the organizations and individuals that influence it.
- Become familiar with the elected and appointed officials who run these local governments, including their styles and their motivations.
- Encourage capable and qualified individuals to run for elected office in these local governments.
Where there is a political vacuum, unions will fill it. Prudent, responsible citizens need to consider becoming future candidates to serve the people on the elected boards of community colleges and other local governments.
News Coverage of Vote
College Board Refuses to Draft Labor Agreement: Trustees say Measure M bond would not have passed if so-called PLAs were part of the deal – Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot – May 16, 2013
Coast College District Rejects Union-Hiring Agreement for $689M Upcoming Work – via Engineering News-Record California – May 17, 2013, originally published in Orange County Register as Coast College District Rejects Union-Hiring Agreement – May 16, 2013
Coast Community College District Project Labor Agreement Defeated! – OC Politics Blog – May 15, 2013
News Coverage Leading Up to Vote
Coast Trustees to Consider Union Construction Deal – Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot – May 13, 2013
Tea Party Objects to Proposed College-Union Pact – Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot – May 14, 2013
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.