Unions Await Fantastic Return on High-Speed Rail Political Investments

Unions Await Fantastic Return on High-Speed Rail Political Investments

It’s a heady time to be a top construction union official in California, as the California High-Speed Rail Authority presumably now holds proposals from as many as five design-build consortiums to build the first segment of the $68 billion project.

If this project moves forward, it will become part of the pantheon of huge American infrastructure projects that unions cite when they brag about the lasting accomplishments of union labor. And unions can also claim an essential role in the politics behind its advancement.

Even before Californians had a chance to vote directly on funding for High-Speed Rail, union-affiliated labor-management cooperation committees made massive campaign contributions to stop statewide ballot initiatives in the mid-2000s that would have given property owners stronger rights against the government’s power of eminent domain, as a result complicating the High-Speed Rail Authority’s land acquisition plans.

For example, the State Building & Construction Trades Council Labor Management Cooperation Trust contributed $1 million in 2006 to the campaign to defeat Proposition 90, a statewide ballot measure to strengthen property rights. And in the spring of 2008, the California Construction Industry Labor-Management Cooperative Trust contributed $250,000 to this No on 98/Yes on 99 campaign committee to oppose another statewide ballot measure to protect property rights.

These two union-affiliated committees are authorized under the obscure Labor-Management Cooperation Act of 1978, a federal law signed by President Jimmy Carter and implemented by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. There are no federal or state regulations specifically addressed toward these trusts, and these trusts do not have any reporting requirements to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management Standards. Unions use these trust funds routinely now to fund campaigns for and against state and local ballot measures in California. 

When Proposition 1A was on the November 2008 ballot asking California voters to authorize borrowing $10 billion for the high-speed rail project by selling bonds, unions provided a substantial portion of the campaign funding. Leading the charge was the California Alliance for Jobs, another labor-management cooperation committee authorized under the Labor-Management Cooperation Act of 1978.

As shown in the Operating Engineers Local 3 Northern California Master Agreement (page 42) and the Northern California District Council of Laborers Master Agreement (pages 14, 26), construction companies belonging to various business trade associations must pay an amount to the California Alliance for Jobs trust based on the number of hours worked by each employee represented by the union. These amounts are incorporated into the state-mandated construction wage rates (so-called “prevailing wages”) as part of the “Other” category of payments. This ambiguous category of employer payments was implemented as California Labor Code Section 1773.1(a)(7-9) when Governor Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 868 in 2003.

Through contributions, a $100,000 loan, and in-kind/non-monetary gifts, the California Alliance for Jobs was able to assist the campaign to pass Proposition 1A with $616,500, comprising 23% of the total amount raised by Californians for High Speed Trains – Yes on Proposition 1A – A Coalition of Taxpayer, Business, Environmental and Labor Groups and People from Across California Tired of Being Stuck In Traffic.

The national headquarters and the Northern California and Southern California locals of the Operating Engineers union combined for another $575,000, the Laborers union chipped in $100,000, and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California gave $75,000. 

Top Ten Contributors to the Main Campaign Committee to Pass Proposition 1A (Includes Loans and Non-Monetary/In-Kind Contributions)


California Alliance For Jobs Rebuild California Committee

Union-Affiliated Labor-Management Cooperation Committee



International Union of Operating Engineers Construction Union



Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 (Union & PAC) Construction Union



Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG) Public Employee Union



California State Council of Laborers Construction Union



Parsons Brinckerhoff Americas Inc. Construction Design & Engineering



AECOM Tech Corporation Construction Design & Engineering



International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 12 Construction Union



Members Voice of the State Building Trades Construction Union



HNTB Corporation Construction Design & Engineering


Union involvement in pushing the high-speed rail wasn’t over with the 2008 election. In 2010 and 2011, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority was stumbling under a confused business plan and skyrocketing cost estimates, the head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California and regional building trade unions submitted commentaries to newspapers defending the planned rail program. And as appointees to the Board of Directors of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California and a representative of the Operating Engineers union kept the votes coming to move the project forward.

Now the unions get the rewards. Section 7.11.3 of the Request for Proposal for Design-Build Services for the first segment of the California High-Speed Rail project stated that “Proposers are advised that, subject to FRA approval, the Authority intends to develop a Community Benefits Agreement consistent with the Community Benefits Policy adopted by the CHSRA Board at its December 6, 2012 meeting with which the Contractor will be required to comply.”

And Section 10.1 of the Request for Proposal states that “The Authority will not make a recommendation for award of the Contract unless the successful selected Proposer has submitted the following…A letter of assent executed by the Proposer agreeing to be bound by the Community Benefits Agreement.”

This “Community Benefit Agreement” is commonly known as a “Project Labor Agreement.” In fact, a “draft” Project Labor Agreement is included as Addendum 8 in the High Speed Rail Authority’s bid documents for the Request for Proposal. (See my comprehensive analysis of the union “Community Benefits Agreement” for the California High-Speed Rail and the subsequent rebuttal from the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO national headquarters.)

For construction unions, California’s High-Speed Rail project will yield a fantastic long-term return for their political investment. It remains to be seen if taxpayers see any worthwhile returns on their “investment” in paying for it.

Kevin Dayton is the President and 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.

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