Labor Accord Target of GOP

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County's Republican congressional leaders have sent the Board of Supervisors a letter urging them to rescind a labor pact that makes it mandatory for the county to use unions on big public projects.

The letter, dated June 8 and signed by the area's five congressmen, asked that supervisors drop the agreement because the legislators claim the pact is restricting bidders on county projects and raising costs to taxpayers.

"We strongly urge you to revoke the project labor agreement . . . which will allow more contractors to bid on projects and reduce unnecessary costs for Orange County's taxpayers," the letter states.

It was signed by Reps. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, Ed Royce of Fullerton, Darrell E. Issa of Vista, Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach and Gary G. Miller of Diamond Bar.

A union agreement could jeopardize federal funds for construction projects, the congressmen also said in the letter.

In February, President Bush signed an order revoking a requirement that construction projects using federal funds employ union workers. The order reversed a 1993 order signed by President Bill Clinton that gave preference to union workers in jobs using federal funds.

The letter stated that the "Bush executive order is intended to send a strong signal that government at all levels should be neutral toward both union and nonunion contractors and should work steadfastly to prevent discrimination against workers who choose not to belong to a union."

Known as a "project labor agreement," the pact was adopted by the County Board's three pro-airport members about 16 months ago over protests by independent contractors who contended the agreement would result in higher construction costs.

The board said the agreement was needed to control project costs, guarantee a supply of skilled workers and impose hefty fines for work stoppages or strikes. It requires 85% union workers on general contracts of $225,000 or more and on specialty contracts worth $15,000 or more.

But critics accused supervisors who approved the pact--Chuck Smith, Jim Silva and Cynthia P. Coad--of pandering to labor unions to win union support last year to fight an anti-airport measure.

Coad, who chairs the Board of Supervisors, said it may be premature to revoke the pact in view of alternatives suggested by labor groups, such as requesting a waiver of Bush's executive order.

"And, if that isn't forthcoming, labor leaders said they will work with us to modify the agreement," Coad said.

According to Richard Slawson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles and Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council, the agreement is not revocable because it is a contract.

Supervisor Tom Wilson cited a study by the Associated Builders and Contractors, which found that costs for pavement repairs and maintenance at John Wayne Airport were $1.3 million in 1999, yet increased to $1.7 million the following year with only one bidder. The work was for the same items both years, and Wilson attributed the higher cost to the pact.

Smith said: "The labor people have stated they are willing to talk and rethink the agreement."

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