Last week's high-profile vote of the Board of Supervisors couldn't have been sweeter for organized labor even if Eugene V. Debs, Walter Reuther and Joe Hill themselves had cast the winning votes.
The supervisors voted 3-2 to sign a so-called "Project Labor Agreement" (PLA) with the Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO. The end result of this vote: every major construction project for the next five years will be built by union workers.
To most local observers, including the virulently anti-union editorial writers at The Orange County Register, however, the supes' vote was merely a cynical bid to guarantee labor's support for the county's controversial plan to build a commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. That much is obvious; the pro-airport trio that carried the vote—Supes Chuck Smith, Jim Silva and Cynthia Coad—are hardly friends of labor. Their sudden conversion to the union cause can only be understood in the context of the airport battle.
But these facts ignore the real significance of the Jan. 11 vote: for perhaps the first time in Orange County history, organized labor won a major victory from the county's most powerful politicians in return for what can only be described as nothing. Orange County labor has always supported a commercial airport at El Toro, chiefly because of the project's potential to create thousands of well-paying—if short-term—union construction jobs.
Labor's support for the airport hasn't just been ideological: labor dollars and union voters helped pass the pro-airport Measure A and defeat the anti-airport Measure S—something labor has never tried to hide.
"No one else is reaching out to labor unions by offering us a valuable alternative to what's been proposed by the county," said Bill Fogarty, secretary/treasurer of the OC Central Labor Council (CLC). "It's hard to say no to jobs for our members, whether the project is an airport or not."
One thing the county can likely expect in return from the CLC is that it won't support Measure F, the anti-airport Safe & Healthy Communities Act scheduled for a vote on March 7. As Fogarty knows, Measure F would make it difficult—if not impossible—for the county to proceed with the kinds of major public-works projects typically rich in union jobs.
Still, he insists no promises have been made. "Our delegates are still waiting to make a decision about Measure F," said Fogarty. "Some of them live in South County and oppose the airport. But that issue will come to our executive board and then go to our membership for a vote. What the membership decides is what our council will endorse, and that is based on a simple majority"—not the two-thirds "supermajority" vote promulgated by Measure F.
Whatever the outcome of Measure F, labor's new deal with the county in no way depends on the future of the El Toro International Airport. "This agreement has nothing to do with the airport," claimed Mike Potts, a business representative with the LA/OC Building Trades who also sits on the pro-airport El Toro Citizens Advisory Commission. "If the county doesn't get its airport, we still have an agreement."
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In fact, an appendix to the PLA lists approximately 100 potential county contracts that would be handed over to union workers as part of the deal. While both union and nonunion contractors would have the right to bid on all of those projects, nonunion contractors would have to hire 85 percent of their employees for the project directly from local union hiring halls.
"The crux of this agreement is that the county of Orange has always paid a certain wage that is based on the prevailing wage," said Potts. "In the past several years, Orange County's nonunion culture has eroded that wage by underbidding unionized contractors who have no ability to compete with nonunion contractors who illegally reduce wages. This new agreement won't allow for that. It just won't be possible."
While the PLA will only cover construction jobs—and not any long-term employment opportunities created by a major public-works project such as an airport—Orange County labor can be expected to fight for those jobs further down the road, when projects like the airport actually come to fruition. Fogarty told the Weekly that the CLC is in the process of presenting various local officials with proposed "neutrality agreements" that would keep employers from interfering with organizing efforts.
"Whatever is built—an airport, a jail, a dump or whatever—we want to make sure that there are certain protections for those long-term job positions that are created," Fogarty said. "Federal law says that employers should remain neutral in employee decisions over labor representation. If there is an opportunity to organize those workers, we want to make sure that employers obey the law and allow the workers to organize if they so choose."