In a setback for nonunion construction companies, Los Angeles city officials are set to draw up an agreement with building trade unions to give preference to union contractors for public works projects.

City Councilwoman Jan Perry recently introduced an ordinance calling for the Department of Public Works to draft a project labor agreement with the Building Trades Council of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, which represents union workers.

The agreement, if approved, would require all contractors on city public works projects to do their hiring through union halls and pay fees into benefit funds operated by unions. Nonunion contractors could bid on public works projects, but they would be required to hire through union halls.

In exchange, the building trade unions promise not to strike or otherwise disrupt the work.

Union officials claim such agreements save taxpayer dollars by preventing union delays and streamlining the hiring process. But nonunion contractors said the agreements lead to higher construction costs and reduce competition because some contractors decline to bid.

Because nonunion contractors sometimes bring in workers from outside the region, Perry said the project labor agreement would keep hiring local, which is important because the unemployment rate citywide is 12.5 percent and is approaching 20 percent in some communities.

But Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, which represents nonunion contractors, said that higher employment costs associated with a project labor agreement would send contractors to bid on out-of-area projects, or failing that, to shut down.

"This will harm and retard any growth coming out of the recession," Christen said. "These city officials are intent on destroying a whole class of workers because of the power of the unions."

Several nonunion contractors including two in Los Angeles, BergElectric Corp. and Tri-Signal Integration Inc. have previously indicated that they probably wouldn't bid on any contracts under project labor agreements.

But Richard Slawson, executive secretary of the Building Trades Council of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, said that project labor agreements do not result in higher costs to nonunion contractors, since most union pay scales are comparable with prevailing wages that all contractors must pay under California law. Also, in previous project labor agreements, exemptions were granted on wage levels for some apprentice hires.

The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency adopted a project labor agreement last year. Negotiations for the Department of Public Works PLA were put on hold pending the CRA agreement.

The current negotiations come after President Obama lifted a ban on federal funds for construction covered by project labor agreements. The Bush administration had banned funding, making it more difficult for cities and agencies to adopt PLAs.

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