Nearly a decade ago, Sonoma County government set up some parameters for its publicly-funded construction jobs, like requiring certain agreements for jobs costing $10 million dollars or more. But since then, the county has not built any projects costing that much. So local officials started to look at revising the policy.
In the world of construction, there’s a deep divide over what are called PLAs…project labor agreements. Those are collective bargaining agreements between the project owner and labor unions that set the employment terms for specific projects.
Those against PLAs say they discriminate against non-union contractors, limit the pool of bidders, and raise construction costs, as one academic study at Cornell puts it. Here in Sonoma County, Lisa Wittke Schaffner leads the North Coast Builders Exchange. She told county supervisors she is not in favor of lowering that $10 million dollar threshold.
“We have members that are union and non-union, and we want all of our members to be able to compete in all these projects,” Wittke Schaffner said. “[We’ve heard] a lot about workforce and training today. We just graduated 70 kids from the North Bay Construction Corps. We will be standing in front of you in a couple of weeks and letting you know how many were hired into how many different businesses, and we want every single one of those young people to be able to work on a county project.”
Those in favor of PLAs dispute that stance.
“PLAs are a 21st century construction management tool that guarantees that projects are brought in on time and on budget,” said Jack Buckhorn with the North Bay Labor Council. “And to that point, we did a case study at the College of Marin, which was the first public sector PLA in the North Bay, where we had projects both in and out of a PLA during the same market. And that data, which was done by UC Berkeley Labor Center, showed that there was no increase in cost or decrease in competition.”
Buckhorn is among those who think the county should lower the threshold requiring PLAs on county jobs; many asked it be lowered to $500,000.
Ken Miller with Ironworkers Local 378 told county supervisors that he agrees, and current policy doesn’t help his members.
“They don't actually get to work at Sonoma County very often because there's not much work for union members there,” Miller said. “With the PLA in place, you would think that would be the case, but with the threshold so high, we haven't been able to utilize it. So by lowering that threshold, we can get local people working on local projects.”
After recent debate, Sonoma County supervisors are moving forward on lowering that PLA threshold…but for projects costing $1 million or more, so from $10 million to $1 million. And any future construction projects on the county-owned fairgrounds and for the water agency are expected to be included, the airport is not.