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Pro-labor union proposal raises questions of cost increases

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Construction workers continue with renovations of Alamo Square Park in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, February 27, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco may ensure publicly funded projects through such city departments like Public Works or Recreation and Park are covered by a joint labor union agreement benefiting local unions under a proposal introduced Tuesday by Supervisor Mark Farrell.

Farrell’s legislation, called Citywide Project Labor Agreement for Public Work or Improvement Projects, would apply to public projects of more than $1 million or those where department heads worry a project delay would impact vital services.

Such agreements are strongly backed by labor unions as they require all workers to pay union dues, require hiring from local union hiring halls and apprenticeship programs, and provide more labor protections.

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“Project labor agreements have multiple aspects to them; the key from my perspective is ensuring highly skilled labor on our city projects at the same time guaranteeing wages and working conditions that will allow working families to stay in our city,” Farrell told the San Francisco Examiner during an interview Monday.

Critics of such agreements, however, argue they inflate taxpayer costs, cut out smaller minority non-union contractors and reduce competition in bidding on the public projects.

The proposal impacts general fund departments like Recreation and Park and Public Works, which include such projects as laying sewer pipes, building gyms or a bathroom remodel. It would not impact enterprise departments like the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco International Airport and the Municipal Transportation Authority.

“We look forward to working with the supervisor’s office as this moves through the legislative process,” said Department of Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon.

Connie Chan, spokesperson for the Recreation and Park Department, said, “We will review the legislation once introduced. The Department’s goal is to deliver best quality park improvements possible — on time and on budget.”

Both union and city officials couldn’t provide the number and dollar figure of such projects that annually would fall under such an agreement nor how many projects are currently going to non-union contractors. Further analysis on the proposal would be conducted as it wends its way through the approval process at the Board of Supervisors.

Farrell said “potentially” public projects could come in at a higher cost. “We are making a values based decision,” he added. “In San Francisco we are a strong union-labor town which we embrace as a city and I embrace.”

In announcing the legislation on the steps of City Hall Tuesday, Farrell was joined by a large turnout of labor union members. The San Francisco Labor Council and the San Francisco Building Trades Council are backing the effort.

Michael Theriault, secretary-treasurer of the Building Trades Council, said Monday that such a proposal hasn’t moved forward in the past in part because of concerns about the seclusion of minority contracts, but he said over the years the smaller union contractors have become more diverse and they deserve “credit” for that.

Theriault said the agreement will benefit workers in ensuring health benefits are actually provided when non-union workers customarily aren’t guaranteed those benefits as part of prevailing wage compensation and better enforcement of labor conditions with union stewards on the job sites.

Theriault said that the unions do give up some labor rights in exchange for the labor agreement. “We sacrifice the right to take job action,” Theriault said. “That’s not something we sacrifice lightly.”

In a statement issued Tuesday, Theriault said, “This policy will ensure better protections for workers, better opportunities for local residents, and work of enduring quality for The City.”

The Associated Builders and Contractors, which represents largely non-union construction contractors, opposes Farrell’s legislation.

“We believe in increasing opportunities for the entire workforce, not for legislators to introduce legislation that restricts a portion of the workforce,” said Nicole Goehring, community and government relations director for the Associated Builders and Contractors. “That is not going to do anything to help with the skilled or trained workforce shortage.”

Goehring said it would make it challenging for the small and minority owned non-union contractors to work on the projects because they would have to hire from the local unions’ hiring halls. “They would have tell their workers, ‘I am going to work on this project but I can’t use you. You will have to sit in the dugout.’ It creates a morale issue within your company.”

Farrell said that the threshold for what projects are covered by the agreement, the amount of $1 million, would likely be debated. “We need to strike a balance to being overly burdensome to our city departments, which is why we have a threshold amount,” Farrell said.

The legislation already has the six votes needed to pass with Farrell and co-sponsors supervisors Ahsha Safai, Norman Yee, Malia Cohen, Hillary Ronen and Jeff Sheehy.

For Farrell, the pro-labor proposal comes at a time that could benefit him politically as he is widely thought to be planning a run for mayor in November 2019.

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