Congressmen Urge O.C. Supervisors to End Labor Pact


Orange County's congressional leaders have sent the Board of Supervisors a letter urging it 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 county supervisors drop the deal because it restricts bidders on county projects and raises 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 says.

It was signed by Republican Reps. Christopher Cox, Ed Royce, Darrell Issa, Dana Rohrabacher and Gary Miller.

In addition, any union agreement could jeopardize federal funds for construction projects, the congressmen said in the letter.

In February, President Bush signed an executive order revoking a requirement that construction projects using federal funds be unionized. It reversed a 1993 executive 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 board's three pro-El Toro airport project majority members about 16 months ago over protests by independent contractors, who contended that the agreement would result in higher construction costs.

The board said the pact was needed to control project costs, guarantee a supply of skilled local 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 in exchange for union support last year to fight an anti-airport ballot measure. Measure F was passed by 67% of the vote but was overturned by a judge in December.

Coad, who now heads 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.

The county's pact is unique because it applies to most projects through 2005. Other labor deals in California have been tailored to specific public works projects.

But according to Richard Slawson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles and Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council, the labor pact is irrevocable because it is a contract.

"We're open to discussion to change the contract," Slawson said, adding that he and other labor officials "did not appreciate" the congressional delegation "interfering with local government."

Last week, Supervisor Tom Wilson requested a county review to pinpoint any unnecessary costs that may have resulted from the pact.

"The county has 18 projects in the pipeline to be approved," Wilson said. "I don't think we're saving the taxpayers any money."

Wilson cited a recent study by 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; Wilson blamed the higher cost on the pact.

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