Today (Tuesday, August 13, 2013) construction trade unions either showed exceptional arrogance or exceptional foolishness when they chose to exploit the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) against a high-profile “infill” project in downtown San Jose.
For the past few years, some California state legislators have wanted to discourage CEQA actions meant to advance objectives unrelated to environmental protection. Even Democratic legislative leaders such as California State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) are seeking minor CEQA amendments to reduce obstacles to infill development, which is regarded by some as a wise planning strategy for the environment.
Under these circumstances, it was astonishing to see the Santa Clara-San Benito Counties Building and Construction Trades Council appeal the San Jose Planning Director’s approval of a downtown 23-story residential “infill” project called One South Market Street. The appeal was filed by the law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo and based on alleged CEQA violations and planning and zoning code violations.
No one was fooled. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed declared “It’s not really about the environment … it’s abuse of the environmental process.” And Councilman Johnny Khamis complained that the city council had two abusive back-to-back CEQA objections on its agenda, one with an anti-competitive motive and one with a union motive.
In the end, the city council rejected the union appeal, although two council members voted to support the unions. One of them was San Jose City Councilman Xavier Campos, who is the brother of Assemblywoman Nora Campos, who is married to Neil Struthers, who spoke at the meeting in support of the CEQA appeal as the head of the Santa Clara-San Benito Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.
Groundbreaking for the project had already occurred in a ceremony on June 25, 2013. No one up to that point had indicated any concerns about permitting or environmental review. But on that same day, the law firm for construction unions submitted an objection letter. The unions formally appealed various aspects of the project on July 9 and July 12.
In an August 13, 2013 article about the appeal (Union Challenging Downtown San Jose High-Rise), the Silicon Valley Business Journal indicated that the union objections to the project were not necessarily related to environmental concerns.
So what’s going on? Sources told me the union appears to be trying to send a message after several key subcontracts on the job were delivered to non-union contractors out of Sacramento.
“The Building Trades are not opposed to more high-rises downtown. What we are opposed to is this developer generating more profits at the expense of local workers and the environment,” Neil Struthers, CEO of the Santa Clara & San Benito Counties Building & Construction Trades Council, told me in an email.
He added: “No project should be given the ability to avoid the requirements every other developer must meet as it relates to water quality, affordable housing and traffic mitigation. Someone needs to stand up to those that have the power to gain preferential treatment from local government.”
Reportedly the contractor most objectionable to the unions is a large electrical company that works on major commercial projects throughout Northern California. Its headquarters is in Sacramento, but it has a Bay Area office in Hayward, 25 miles away from downtown San Jose via Interstate 880. Construction companies in Northern California capable of working on a 23-story high rise building tend to have a regional market – these are not hometown plumbers.
Because the City of San Jose has provided tax and fee waivers with financial value to the developer, One South Market Street is regarded under California law as a public works project. All construction companies – both union and non-union – must pay state-mandated construction wage rates (“prevailing wages”) to their trade workers on this project. In California, state prevailing wage rates always duplicate the wage rates in the applicable union collective bargaining agreements for that trade in that geographical region.
In other words, local hiring or wage rates are not legitimate issues. Control of the workforce is the issue.
Presumably, the Santa Clara-San Benito Counties Building and Construction Trades Council will continue to interfere with the project (perhaps with a lawsuit) until the developer (Market Street Tower Venture, LLC, on behalf of Essex OSM REIT, LLC) agrees to sign a Project Labor Agreement or some other contract giving unions a monopoly on construction of the building.
The One South Market Street CEQA appeal shows that unions have a strong economic interest in stopping any proposals that compromise the obstructive power of CEQA. It should not be a surprise that construction trade unions are reportedly the primary obstacle to Senator Steinberg’s very modest CEQA reform bill, Senate Bill 731, but apparently Senator Steinberg was surprised, according to the August 5, 2013 article from California Forward: CEQA Roundup: Have Negotiations Really Stalled?
Steinberg himself seems to have been surprised by the opposition on the part of some labor leaders, in particular, who have pushed back against his most basic goal: Updating the CEQA process for infill projects. While the Senate leader has tried from the start to write a bill that would drive more of this type of development across the state, sources say some labor leaders view the coming infill wave as the source of a steady stream of jobs – and they are wary of losing CEQA as a tool they can use to reach project labor agreements with developers.
Reform of the California Environmental Quality Act is not an environmental issue. It’s a labor issue.
News Media Coverage
San Jose Denies ‘Greenmail’ Environmental Appeals on High-Rise Project – San Jose Mercury-News – August 13, 2013
San Jose Council Says ‘No’ to Union’s CEQA Challenge of One South Market – Silicon Valley Business Journal – August 13, 2013
Staff Report on Appeal of Santa Clara-San Benito Counties Building and Construction Trades Council to One South Market Street Project (includes June 25, July 9, and July 12 letters from law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo)
Union Challenging Downtown San Jose High-Rise – Silicon Valley Business Journal – August 13, 2013
California Senate Bill 731 – CEQA reform for infill development projects
CEQA Roundup: Have Negotiations Really Stalled? – California Forward – August 5, 2013
KT Properties One South Market Street
Background on One South Market Street from Silicon Valley Business Journal
CEQA Works – the coalition of environmental groups and labor unions opposed to CEQA reform
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.