College district caught in labor agreement fight

The Coast Community College District recently found itself in the crossfire of union and non-union advocates after a board member floated a broad labor agreement that quickly stalled.

The sample agreement with local unions on how to spend $698 million in bond money stoked angry responses, even though the idea has so far received little traction.

In November, voters approved Measure M, which will fund construction at Coast’s three schools: Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Golden West College in Huntington Beach and Coastline Community College based in Fountain Valley.

Four speakers lambasted the college district’s board at its Tuesday meeting, accusing trustees of discrimination against non-union workers by developing a contract with local unions that would dictate hiring on all Measure M projects.

“I’m here tonight because you’ve brought into this college and this chamber disrepute, division and discrimination in the form of a project labor agreement,” said Eric Christen, executive director of Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction — a statewide organization formed to oppose these contracts, also known as PLAs.

Such agreements pre-determine some terms with unions before any individual projects go out to bid.

Union advocates hail them for benefits like keeping hiring local, but opponents call them giveaways to labor because they could control hiring.

“I believe they’re inefficient, unfair and create an un-competitive environment,” Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Matthew Harper told the board.

Christen threatened a campaign of mailers and media against trustees and any agreement.

“Unfortunately you got yourselves into this situation, and now you’re going to understand exactly how controversial it is,” he said.

But there is no project labor agreement being drafted or negotiated, district spokeswoman Martha Parham said.

A board agenda included a sample agreement, but it was only an example provided by advocates, she said.

A task force looking at the idea hasn’t made much movement with it, board members say.

Fountain Valley representative Jerry Patterson placed the item on the agenda at a January special meeting, but other trustees promptly pushed it to a later date, according to board documents.

On Feb. 6, the board voted unanimously to appoint a task force to “explore developing” such an agreement.

But by committee members’ own reports, that’s where the process halted.

The task force had its first meeting this week and ended in a “total standoff,” Patterson said.

Other task force members contended that any desired effects from an overarching agreement could be placed into bids requests for individual projects, he said.

Patterson, however, was eager to decide what the task force wanted in an agreement and appoint negotiators to approach local construction unions.

“To me, the way it’s being approached by the task force, you’re never going to get there. The only report you’re going to get is, ‘We don’t need one,’” he said.

Fellow board and task-force member David Grant was content with that outcome.

“I thought we took your motion to heart and explored whether or not this is even a good idea to proceed with any negotiation or not — not to get into negotiation,” he told Patterson.

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck