Two years ago, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority became the first transit agency in the nation to pick a rail car manufacturer based in part on how many jobs the company would create. The Japanese firm Kinkisharyo International won the nearly $900-million contract to build light-rail cars after promising to hire about 250 workers.
Metro officials had hoped all of those jobs would be in L.A. County, and so far the firm is on track to hire 194 workers for a temporary rail car assembly operation in Palmdale. But a dispute between Kinkisharyo and local labor unions has almost killed plans to build a permanent manufacturing plant there. The company is now looking for a site outside California. We say “almost killed,” because there is still hope that union leaders and Kinkisharyo can put aside their rancor and make a deal. L.A. County should get the good jobs being partly funded by Measure R, the half-cent countywide sales tax that is paying for the new rail cars.
Frankly, there’s been too much misleading rhetoric on both sides. Business groups have tried to portray this dispute as an example of the misuse of the California Environmental Quality Act. They say that a new community group, with ties to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, used CEQA to challenge the Palmdale plant’s approval, under the pretext that the city and the company did not adequately study or mitigate the potential impact on air and water quality and wildlife. But the IBEW’s real motive is not to protect the environment, the business groups say; rather, it hopes to pressure Kinkisharyo to make it easier to organize workers, which the company has so far refused to do.
But even if its motives are mixed, the fact is that the union raised legitimate concerns. Palmdale and Kinkisharyo appeared to cut corners on CEQA and were prepared to build a factory without much study of its potential impact. Any business that wants to locate in California should play by the rules.
On the other side, union-affiliated groups seem unwilling to acknowledge that their hardball tactics could hurt the local economy. The L.A. County Federation of Labor had lobbied on behalf of another firm to get the rail contract, and union leaders have continued to take aim at Kinkisharyo. They say the company would be violating its contract if it moves jobs out of state, and they accuse it of missed hiring deadlines. Metro disputes those allegations. Under federal law, Kinkisharyo cannot be forced to stay. Moreover, Metro officials say the company is exceeding contract requirements and is expected to deliver the rail cars on time.
Both the company and the unions are wrong, and their intransigence could cost L.A. County good jobs. Political leaders, including Metro board members Mayor Eric Garcetti, who chairs the Metro board, and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has close ties to labor, should be working overtime with their colleagues to broker a deal to keep the jobs here.
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