For good or ill, the City of Santa Barbara voted on Tuesday to hire contractors under labor terms called out in a Community Workforce Agreement on city projects costing $5 million or more. Proponents argue the agreement would strengthen union labor and the training they provide to would-be blue-collar workers, but opponents state that more often than not, the jobs go to individuals from other counties.
For the city, the collective bargaining agreement allows it to embark on multi-year projects with conditions already set out regarding wages, management, dispute resolution, drug screening, and a no-strike clause, as well as an agreed-upon workforce goal of 50 percent from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, or Ventura counties. Among the provisions in the 45-page labor agreement that remained to be tested — the council has been discussing this since approving an ordinance in 2018 to allow the agreements — was one that requires all contractors to pay into union pension and health benefits funds.
Lee Cushman pointed out that his contracting company — which handles water, wastewater, and marine construction and reconstruction — is a local company that already pays health benefits and employee retirement funds that his workers control themselves, not a union. With this agreement, his company would pay twice; worse, his workers wouldn’t be on the job long enough to vest into the union plans, so they lost the money. Several speakers agreed with him, including Laurie Bennett, whose family started the Fence Factory. Like Cushman’s company, her family’s provides health benefits and a pension profit-share; her advice to the council was to audit the program annually to “see how this works,” she suggested. “See how many local employees come out of the labor halls.” She predicted they’d see employees coming from Riverside and San Bernardino, as she’d seen happen in many other places: “My employees of many years will lose out on what we’ve been doing since 1972.”
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon was the only official to raise the question. Assistant City Attorney Dan Hentschke said the point had been “heavily negotiated” and acknowledged that some nonunion employee wages would go into the program the union provided. If an employer maintained their own program, they would indeed pay twice, “if the employer chooses to do that,” he added.
In a later conversation, Hentschke said he’d seen huge water projects come in “on time and on budget” under prearranged labor agreements in San Diego. The Santa Barbara team and the unions had also negotiated heavily over the number of “core” employees a contractor could bring onto the project, he said, carving out three spots initially, and three more after that if the hiring of a union employee alternated with that of core employees. In all, the contract was signed by 21 trades, including the Asbestos Heat & Frost Insulators Local 5, three Operating Engineer locals, pipe trades, elevator constructors, teamsters, and iron workers. The union hiring hall would be handled by the Tri-Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.
Sneddon reminded her colleagues she’d said before she couldn’t support the idea of double payments. Councilmember Michael Jordan was the only one to join her “no” in the 5-2 vote. Upcoming projects that fit the category include the new police headquarters on East Cota Street, the De la Vina Bridge Replacement, and electrical upgrades at El Estero wastewater treatment plant.
Read or download the full Community Workforce Agreement below.