Trade unions won a significant victory this week as the county supervisors voted 3-2 to initiate a new policy requiring that most employees who work on major public works projects be hired through the craft unions. Pushing this policy shift were supervisors Das Williams and Joan Hartmann — both facing reelection campaigns within the year — who argued the arrangement, known alternately as Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) or Community Work Agreements, will help ensure more public works jobs go to local workers as opposed to out-of-town employees. In addition, they argued the PLAs will give the county greater leverage to insist that some of these jobs go to women. By strengthening unions, Supervisor Hartmann argued, the county could help buttress the shrinking middle class.
Many contractors opposed the plan, arguing that it will penalize nonunion shops where many local tradespeople happen to work. Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said such a sweeping change should be tested first for unintended consequences; he suggested a pilot project. Supervisor Peter Adam termed the plan a solution in search of a problem. Joe Armendariz, spokesperson for the Santa Barbara Industrial Association, termed it political pay-off by elected officials whose campaigns were bankrolled with union dollars. Armendariz told the unions they should save their money; Williams and Hartmann, he predicted, were going to win whether the unions supported them or not.
Many of the details have yet to be worked out. Many basic facts remain unknown, like, for example, how many people employed by county public works projects can be considered “local” and how many from “out of town.”