On January 11, 2013, a video camera recorded a stunning public tirade by Fresno’s top construction union official at a conference about supposed local contracting opportunities for the first segment of California’s High Speed Rail. Below is video footage of the beginning of a panel discussion about Project Labor Agreements, and below that is the ignominious ending of the panel discussion a few minutes later.
The incident exposes the coercive power of special interest groups behind the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s quest to slice the first segments of this rail corridor through the San Joaquin Valley, located in the middle of the planned route between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It also compromises the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s relentless public relations program to portray the high-speed rail to coastal urbanites as a progressive, visionary plan to save the planet.
An effective public relations campaign depends on major news media focusing on idealistic concepts, rather than the coarse ground game related to which people from which places get the jobs to perform the actual construction. But while idealistic concepts for environmental sustainability are promoted by professional activists who work for non-profit environmental and public transit advocacy organizations, building the high-speed rail requires construction trade workers. This injects union officials from the San Joaquin Valley into the coalition to build the rail line. And one of those union officials tarnished the progressive image on January 11.
Background: Why Will Unions Get a Monopoly on Building California’s High-Speed Rail?
Construction trade unions have long planned to use the government as its agent to monopolize the building of high-speed rail, now estimated by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to cost $68.4 billion. It seemed probable (but not guaranteed) that union workers that specialize in heavy industrial infrastructure construction would end up building the rail line itself. However, the stations and other building infrastructure would be prime bidding targets for Northern California’s productive and efficient non-union contractors. And unions do not want another failure similar to their failed plot ten years earlier to win a Project Labor Agreement to build the new University of California campus in Merced.
That plan – backed by Governor Gray Davis – was undermined in 2001 and 2002 by San Joaquin Valley business, political, and community leaders, who worked with some aggressive construction business associations to expose and criticize the scheme. In the end, bidding was done under fair and open competition, and non-union contractors and their non-union employees were prominent in building the new campus.
This time, things are different. Unions provided campaign support to pass Proposition 1A (the “Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century”) in November 2008. The head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California was appointed to the High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors, along with an official for the Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, which represents operators of cranes, excavators, and other construction equipment.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Section 7.11.3 of the Request for Proposal for Design-Build Services for the first segment of the California High-Speed Rail project states that “Proposers are advised that, subject to FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] approval, the Authority intends to develop a Community Benefits Agreement consistent with the Community Benefits Policy adopted by the CHSRA [California High-Speed Rail Authority] Board at its December 6, 2012 meeting with which the Contractor will be required to comply.” (Note: “Community Benefits Agreement” is a euphemism for “Project Labor Agreement” meant to give the public a nice warm feeling about a union sweetheart deal.)
And Section 10.1 of the Request for Proposal states that “The Authority [that is, the California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales] will not make a recommendation for award of the Contract [to the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors] unless the successful selected Proposer has submitted the following: Escrowed Proposal Documents and corrected any deficiencies identified by the examination of the EPDs, and A letter of assent executed by the Proposer agreeing to be bound by the Community Benefits Agreement.” This indicates a government-mandated Project Labor Agreement.
In addition, the California High-Speed Rail Authority arranged the bidding process on the first segment of the High-Speed Rail (from Madera through Fresno) so that the five prequalified design-build construction consortiums are obligated to sign a Project Labor Agreement with the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California in order to be competitive. This subtlety is possible because the High-Speed Rail Authority is authorized to select the winning bidder using a somewhat subjective scoring system based on “best value” procurement criteria.
On December 6, 2012, the California High-Speed Rail Authority voted for a policy resolution that established generalized “community benefits” that contractors would have to demonstrate as a result of building the high-speed rail through the Central Valley. Not surprisingly, these same benefits are cited in the union Project Labor Agreement that is now included as a “Community Benefits Agreement” in Addendum 8 of the bid documents for the first segment of the high-speed rail. In order to maximize the score for community benefits, the contractor simply agrees to the Project Labor Agreement, and then everyone will feel good that ‘Needy’ Workers Will Get Jobs on High-Speed Rail.
For technical details about the provisions of this Project Labor Agreement, see my comprehensive, 4000-word Analysis of the Phony Community Benefits and Other Provisions in the Union Project Labor Agreement for the First Segment of California’s High-Speed Rail.
Unexpectedly Defiant Resistance to the Project Labor Agreement Provokes Union Anger
A panel discussion about the draft Project Labor Agreement for the construction of the first segment of the California High-Speed Rail was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Friday, January 11, 2012 during the 6th Annual San Joaquin Valley Region Public Contracting / Central Valley High Speed Rail Conference / Expo (Jobs & Contracts) at the Downtown Fresno Radisson Hotel & Convention Center. The panel moderator was Kathleen Ellis Faulkner, a Bakersfield attorney.
Three invited panelists showed up: John Hutson, Secretary-Treasurer of the Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare Counties Building and Construction Trades Council (this organization lacks a web site), Eric Christen of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction (a Project Labor Agreement opponent), and Nicole Goehring of the Northern California Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (another Project Labor Agreement opponent). As you hear in Video #1, organizers of the panel discussion had asked other union officials to participate (some apparently chose instead to sit in the audience).
As shown in Video #1, Hutson was flummoxed to find out he would be defending the unions’ Project Labor Agreement instead of explaining to the construction companies of the Central Valley how they would soon enjoy the benefits of unionization under the Project Labor Agreement if they hoped to work on the High-Speed Rail. He expresses his astonishment that “some little kid” was handing out information from Associated Builders and Contractors about Project Labor Agreements. He then proceeds to tell a colorful story from “when he was a small boy” about farm life.
None of this has anything to do with the terms and conditions of Project Labor Agreements in bid specifications for construction contracts, and Video #2 shows what happened when an effort was made by the moderator to get the panel discussion on track.
Hutson complains that Eric Christen is “edging it on” and “smiling it up.” (Did he mean “egging it on?”) He then says to Christen, in defiance of social norms of respect for other people as promoted by the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor, “I think I recognize you from before your sex change operation.”
The moderator tries to take the microphone away and restore order, but Hutson resists: “get your hands off.” Then he walks away from the table, only to return to spit out some profanity (specific words heard by witnesses but not quite audible on Video #2). He then storms out of the room (and the hotel) with his fellow union officials, leaving the contractors sitting in the room stunned at the personal attacks and derogatory statements launched during the five-minute panel discussion.
A press release jointly issued on January 11, 2013 by the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction and Associated Builders and Contractors quoted a Fresno-based construction company owner who attended the panel discussion:
I took time away from my workday to be here to discuss this important issue on behalf of my employees that prefer to work in a merit shop environment. The antics displayed today represent the reason why I left the Union many years ago. The taxpayers and voters of California should be deeply concerned about the union favoritism displayed in this agreement.
In November 2008, 52.7% of California voters supported Proposition 1A, called the “Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century.” How many of them assumed that the 21st Century would involve these kinds of union antics?
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.