Project labor agreements are collective bargaining agreements formed with unions to set conditions for construction projects, including wages and benefits. They are, in essence, off-the-shelf union contracts.
After hearing impassioned pleas from those in favor of the ordinance, mostly independent contractors, and those against it, union workers in different trades, the board voted it down 4-1. The later argued successfully that as the county has never used a project labor agreement, or PLA, it was not necessary to ban them. Only Supervisor Jeff Stone, who introduced the ordinance, voted for it.
Detractors said PLAs are expensive and restrict open competition in construction projects. Those in favor said they guarantee proper wages and working conditions. One man told the board he had been to a construction site that did not use a PLA and saw that all the workers' cars had Utah license plates. Another alleged that contractors who go without PLAs give work to illegal immigrants.
The agreements are mostly used in large, complex projects that call for workers with various skills, and typically require all workers to belong to a union, or pay union dues for the duration of the project. There has been much debate over whether or not they actually bring down construction costs, although most published reports analyzing their usefulness have found that they do.
The use of PLAs in public construction projects has grown in California in the last few years, causing anti-PLA groups such as the Associated Builders and Contractors to start actively trying to get legislation passed in different parts of the state to have them banned. Most recently, they have succeeded in getting Orange County and San Diego County to bar the use of PLAs in county projects.
The issue is especially important in Riverside, where construction made up 11 percent of industry as recently as 2008. Now unemployment in the county is at a record-high 15 percent and the housing bubble has burst. With construction of new homes drying up, workers are vying for a shrinking number of jobs. Government-funded construction projects are a prize that everyone is after.
"The workforce under these project labor agreements would predominantly be non-Riverside County residents," said Ken Coate, who chairs the Riverside/San Bernardino Associated General Contractors. He said 85 percent of the construction workers in the county do not belong to a union and would not work on projects with a PLA. Union workers who spoke before the board disputed these statements.
Across town, the Riverside Community College District Tuesday night approved a PLA that will be used in a $350 million project it is getting underway to build new facilities.