Don't Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

With Propositions Z and S, California Has Written the Blueprint for Defending PLAs and Funding Quality School Construction

Richard Barrera

Of the $11 billion in construction bonds approved in California this November, the largest portion by far came from the $2.8 billion property tax measure (Proposition Z) to finance current and future facility needs for the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). It is also one of the largest projects in the region to include local hire for construction workers residing in the lowest income areas of the school district.

SDUSD now has almost $5 billion of construction work under a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) right in the backyard of anti-union contractors who have proposed banning collective bargaining rights for construction workers.

The path to the largest PLA in the history of San Diego was not easy.

It started in 2008 with the passage of Proposition S, a $2.1 billion school construction bond. Then came the election of a new majority on the school board which, under the leadership of Richard Barrera, a union organizer, resolved to negotiate a project stabilization agreement with the Building Trades. This agreement had several goals for generating the best value for the district. By setting worksite standards, it intended to help SDUSD stabilize construction costs and its work force supply. Beyond these economic goals, the agreement also set out to give SDUSD control over what types of jobs to create on the project.

The PLA included targets to create good, local jobs, particularly in ZIP codes with high unemployment. Barrera described the agreement as “a shot in the arm to San Diegans, and their families and kids.”

Anti-union contractors claimed that voters would never have supported Proposition S had they known that the board would bid out the work under a PLA. They threatened Armageddon:

“We are targeting the three board members who are handmaidens for the union,” said Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, a group that lobbies against labor agreements. Christen said it would be the largest and most extensive campaign ever undertaken by his group.

(Source:, January 29, 2009)

“This is probably the worst (agreement) that I’ve ever seen and the most discriminatory,” said Eric Christen, who led the campaign against the agreement. He added, “The good news for the public is that we do live in a democratic republic” and they could vote against school board members in the next election. Others said their companies would not bid on the bond.

(Source:, May 27, 2009)

In July 2009, unfazed by the threats of recall, a 3-2 majority of the school board approved a PLA on the Proposition S school construction projects for a trial period of three years. Barrera summarized the sentiment of the board thus: “I’m not going to be intimidated into not doing the right thing.”

Governing by the will of the people

The good news is that we live in a democracy.

Barrera became a two-term president of the Board of Education and got reelected without opposition.

The two board members that voted against the PLA failed to get reelected. Voters instead selected board members that support the PLA. One board member who voted for the PLA was so impressed with its success that she testified that it produced more jobs for her community than any other entity in the city.

One board member who supported the PLA was headed for a run-off in the general election this November. The editorial of the anti-union establishment paper punished him for the “original sin” of the board, suggesting the first reason to oppose his reelection was his support for the PLA three years prior. He won by 7 percentage points over his anti-PLA opponent.

The entire school board now supports the PLA unanimously.

Winning the argument

The contractors’ association filed a lawsuit in state court alleging discrimination against non-union apprenticeship programs. In 2010, a trial court rejected their allegation, stating that “The district acted in its proprietary interest in adopting the [PLA]. The [PLA] is specific to the Proposition S projects, and does not discriminate against non-union contractors.” Contractors appealed the decision.

In 2011, they lost again when the appellate court in California specifically ruled that the district was free to partner with apprenticeship programs that offered superior standards in education and training than the minimum requirements of the state of California. In their decision, the 3-justice court quoted Richard Barrera from the hearing at which the PLA was adopted:

“I think the question, you know, that I continue to have after visiting [the non-union apprenticeship programs] is, what’s the commitment on the part of the non-union contractors to the people who are being trained through the apprenticeship programs. And I got to say that that question persists in my mind certainly. 90 percent of the graduates of apprenticeship programs in San Diego County are coming out of the union programs. Nearly a hundred percent of women and people of color who graduate from apprenticeship programs are coming out of the union apprenticeship program. The non-union contractors frequently state the claim that 85 percent of the industry in San Diego County is non-union. So whether that’s true or not, if 15 percent of the industry is producing 90 to a hundred percent of the graduates, that’s real commitment.”

“[W]e have an opportunity to partner with the best apprenticeship programs in this state to create real career opportunities for the kids who are coming out of our schools.”

This decision set a legal precedent in California so that similar lawsuits are not used to threaten public agencies from partnering with superior apprenticeship programs.

The claim of anti-union contractors that PLAs increased construction costs is also proving false. An independent study commissioned by the district showed that projects finished faster under a PLA while construction costs did not increase. In fact, non-union contractors have done quite well under the PLA. Small and minority businesses are getting a larger share of the subcontracting as well and local hire goals are being met.

Last on the ballot, but first in priority for kids and community

Last December, based on the success of the agreement in quality construction and creating jobs for the community, the district extended the PLA to last until the $2.1 billion secured by Proposition S is completely utilized. In July this year, the board placed a new $2.8 billion property tax measure on the November ballot to “address critical facilities and technology needs at existing schools and in neighborhoods, fund ongoing school maintenance to ensure student health and safety, increase energy efficiency in campus buildings, and provide charter schools with adequate and efficient facilities.”

Proposition Z thus went to voters with a PLA in place and with a campaign to create 30,000 jobs over the life of the bond. The campaign created a broad coalition of labor, business, educators and charter schools.

Contractors’ associations attacked Proposition Z, sending out anti-union mailers. They teamed up with a quote-unquote taxpayer group on whose board they sit to cite a questionable study about the costs of PLAs in opposing them. However, their campaign was not framed around the local jobs generated by the PLA, nor about much-needed school repairs. Rather, it was misleadingly framed around inflated costs of iPads. The shrillness of their quixotic hyperbole is illustrated by this juvenile statement:

“A vote against Proposition Z is a vote for sanity.”

(UTSanDiego Editorial Board, October 31, 2012)

By the latest count, 208,473 San Diegans (61%) had proven themselves insane by voting in favor of Proposition Z on November 6, 2012. The measure passed with a margin greater than we expected. Now, the last word goes to the “union handmaiden” who would not be intimidated when he first proposed the PLA, Richard Barrera:

“This is good news for public education. This reflects a fantastic outreach effort, particularly in Latino neighborhoods. We had parents talking to parents, neighbors talking to neighbors.”

We now have a $5 billion PLA mandate, the largest in San Diego’s history.


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