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Major city building projects in Costa Mesa must use union labor under 5-year agreement

A crew works on capital improvements on Costa Mesa's Merrimac Way in 2021.
A crew works on capital improvements on Costa Mesa’s Merrimac Way in 2021. Council members approved an agreement Tuesday that would require major capital projects to use only union labor.
(Courtesy of the city of Costa Mesa)

Building trade unions doing work in Costa Mesa got a huge boost Tuesday, after officials signed off on a five-year community workforce agreement requiring the city’s major capital improvement projects be built with primarily union labor.

The project labor agreement (PLA), which takes effect in January 2023, applies to nearly $80 million in major building projects being eyed by the city in the next five years, including police and fire station upgrades, park projects and improvements to storm drains, streets and trails.

It includes a 35% local hire provision that gives preference to employees who live in, or graduated from, Costa Mesa as well as veterans, graduates of an authorized apprenticeship training program and Orange County residents at large. Compliance would be monitored by a consultant costing roughly .8% of the total project budget, or about $640,000 for $80 million.

“This is a good approach at a collaborative effort between our city, the trades and schools … to really create and reinforce a pipeline to skilled jobs and high wages,” Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds said of the plan.

Roadwork on Costa Mesa's Merrimac Way in 2021.
Roadwork on Costa Mesa’s Merrimac Way in 2021. Starting in 2023, capital improvements will have to be built by union workers.
(Courtesy of the city of Costa Mesa)

Tuesday’s vote followed a lengthy discussion during which speakers weighed in on whether an exclusive bargaining agreement with the Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council would benefit or burden the community.

Proponents — largely tradesman and union representatives whose workers qualify for the local hire stipulation — said giving Costa Mesa and Orange County employees priority on local projects would reduce commute times, add to workers’ quality of life and put money back into the economy.

“[It] benefits the city by having tax dollars spent on city projects being paid to local residents, who spend that money on local businesses,” said Doug Mangione, director of politics for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Orange County local 441. “Our members will benefit, and your city will benefit.”

Ray Baca, executive director of the Engineering Contractors’ Assn of Southern California said the move would offer quality jobs for apprenticeship graduates.

“This agreement will provide a career pathway for young men and women in Costa Mesa,” Baca told the council. “Community workforce agreements enhance the value of your local workforce without an increase in labor costs.”

Proponents say a community workforce agreement would create jobs for Costa Mesa residents, veterans and local graduates. Opponents believe it will exclude workers and drive up costs.

Opponents disagreed, saying the agreement would result in fewer, and costlier, bids by excluding locals, veterans and apprenticeship graduates who currently work for nonunion contractors and accounted for more than 86% of the construction industry in 2020, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The PLA allows such firms to use just five nonunion workers for any project and requires they pay additional union health and pension benefits they cannot receive unless they become vested with a union.

“That is an implicit attempt to discriminate against the nonunion worker, who already has his own benefits program — why is that part of the PLA?” asked Eric Christian, head of the anti-PLA Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction.

Former Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis, who questioned the merits of the agreement when it first came before the council in July 2020, called it a “charade” designed to strengthen unions and said it offered no guarantee local hire provisions would be met.

But Trades Council representative Ernesto Madrano said in nearby cities with similar agreements, the 35% local hire threshold has been surpassed. Anaheim adopted a PLA in 2019 and uses 40.74% prioritized employees on city projects, while Santa Ana approved one in 2017 and employs 50.52% local workers.

“We can meet the goals of the local hire (requirement), because we have the workforce, and we have the best trained individuals to put to work in the city,” Madrano said.

Councilman Don Harper cast the lone dissenting vote against the agreement, questioning the consultant cost and the implication that nonunion workers would be excluded from city projects.

Councilman Manuel Chavez — who graduated from Estancia High School with classmates who never went on to college — said he hoped it would create job pathways and opportunities for Costa Mesa residents and graduates alike.

“We’re giving every resident in Costa Mesa, with or without a college degree, the chance to be successful in life,” he said. “And for that, I proudly support this motion.”

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