Local nonunion contractors said last week they intend to push ahead with bans on union-friendly project labor agreements, despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature this month on a bill that limits their adoption.

The bill prohibits bans on PLAs in the majority of cities in Los Angeles County and cuts state funding to projects in other cities if they adopt bans.

“We’re going to continue trying to get bans passed, but it’s going to be more difficult now that municipalities will have to worry about losing state funding,” said Chris Chase, president of Triple C Electric Inc. in Valencia, a nonunion electrical contractor.

Chase said his company doesn’t bid on contracts that are subject to project labor agreements and his bidding opportunities have decreased as PLAs have become more common.

The conflict grows from nonunion contractors’ fear that PLAs shut them out of lucrative public works contracts. Last year they obtained PLA bans in Chula Vista, Oceanside, unincorporated San Diego County and the Palmdale Water Board in Los Angeles County.

The bill Brown signed, SB 922 by Sen. President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, was sponsored by building trade unions and introduced last month in the final week of the legislative session. It prohibits all general law cities, counties and any other government agencies or boards from enacting bans on project labor agreements and cuts off state funding for construction projects in any charter cities that ban the agreements.

In Los Angeles County, 66 cities are ruled by general law and 22 by charter. But among the latter are the biggest cities, including Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena and Santa Monica.

Project labor agreements cover large public works projects and are negotiated between building trade unions and public agencies. Contractors working on projects covered by these agreements must hire workers from union hiring halls and pay into a special benefits fund for those workers. In return, building trade unions promise not to call for work slowdowns or strikes. The agreements are often paired with requirements that a certain percentage of workers be hired from adjoining communities.

Building trade unions say public agencies are more likely to bring in projects on time and within budget under PLAs thanks to the labor peace they guarantee. The unions have aggressively pushed for such agreements, saying they result in higher wages and benefits for local residents.

‘Lowball bids’

“Project labor agreements prevent contractors from cheating their workers out of the proper wages and benefits,” said Robbie Hunter, executive secretary of the Building Trades Council of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. “Otherwise, some contractors come in and are able to make lowball bids.”

Nonunion contractors have fought against PLAs, claiming the agreements freeze them out of lucrative public works contracts and thus reduce competition and drive up price tags, forcing taxpayers to pay more for public works projects.

One major reason many nonunion contractors don’t bid on projects with PLAs is because that under the agreements, they must pay into special benefits funds; those payments are in addition to any benefits they already provide employees.

“We don’t bid on projects with PLAs because we’d have to make double pension contributions under them,” said Eddie Billig, senior vice president of construction for Bergelectric Corp., an Los Angeles-based nonunion contractor. “It puts us at a cost disadvantage.”

The PLA bans are backed by the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, a statewide organization headed by Eric Christian.

Christian said that the bill was “badly written and cobbled together at the last minute,” and claimed that it wouldn’t stop the movement to ban PLAs. He added that many projects don’t have state funds because California has pulled back on funding due to budget deficits.

While a ban is unlikely in the union stronghold of Los Angeles, the nonunion contractor coalition is pushing to pass several other bans on PLAs throughout the state. Eventually, the group plans to introduce more bans in Los Angeles County, including for county government and Long Beach projects.

Faced with the prospect of more bans on PLAs, building trade unions persuaded state Senate leader Steinberg to introduce his bill.

“Why should there be bans on PLAs?” asked Hunter of the Building Trades Council. “Let the governing body decide whether a PLA is justified.”

But nonunion contractors such as Bergelectric’s Billig said voters should decide whether the bans are justified.

“The people understand that PLA’s are discriminatory and a rip-off to taxpayers,” Billig said. “It’s our elected officials that just don’t get it.”

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