By David Grau
Recently, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors was told that a proposed Community Workforce Agreement on county projects would likely increase project costs more than $75 million over the next five years. Their own staff recommended that the board reject the proposed CWA.
However, an undeterred Supervisor John Zaragoza, along with Supervisors Kelly Long and Steve Bennett, directed their staff back to the drawing board to “explore all alternatives,” including, presumably, one that justifies a CWA and wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.
The CWA, also called a Project Labor Agreement, requires that all contractors, whether they are unionized or not, subject themselves and their employees to unionization in order to be eligible to work on county-funded construction projects. This particular CWA includes a union collective bargaining agreement for Ventura County construction project bid specifications. In order to receive a contract, the contractor must sign the agreement and subject the employees of that contract to union control without choice.
Staff concluded the CWA will result in more than $75 million in added costs over the next five years, which would materially delay public safety projects, pause communication infrastructure upgrades, and cancel much needed projects at our airport and harbor.
Staff recommended that the Board of Supervisors reject the CWA because “the advantages of the proposed CWA are not proportional to the estimated additional cost.”
What is going on? Staff is against the CWA. Taxpayers are against wasting $75 million. Yet Supervisors Zaragoza, Long and Bennett are pushing for this. Why?
Unions tout CWA benefits as guaranteeing greater quality workmanship from a better-trained workforce along with guaranteeing more jobs for local workers. However, these same unions produce no evidence or track record to support any of these claims.
With a CWA, qualified, nonunion contractors who wish to make lower-cost bids, and employees who wish to work nonunion, will be effectively locked out of these projects. These limiting factors will discourage bid submissions, as concluded by staff, resulting in less competition and inevitably raise the price of construction.
In Ventura County, at least 80 percent of the workforce is nonunion, which means that a small number of contractors are likely to bid on any project, although out-of-county contractors are free to bid. Most nonunion contractors are unwilling to become de facto union contractors simply to get some public works dollars, especially when the private economy is booming, which means fewer bidders and higher prices.
But the reason unions try to lock out nonunion companies from competing for public works projects is not because the nonunion firms pay their workers less. Prevailing wage agreements—which can be completely independent of CWAs—already prevent that. One reason unionized firms drive costs up in projects is because of their work rules, rules which prohibit skilled workers from doing anything that is outside of their governed skill set, even if it is far more convenient for them to do so.
Additionally, the logic employed by CWA advocates borders on the sinister. The county can enjoy “labor peace” and “job stability” if only they are enlightened enough to enter into a CWA before they put a project out to bid. A failure to sign up could invite “costly delays.” The threat to shut down a project or otherwise cause trouble lies just below the surface of the high-minded appeals for cooperation that come from the unions and their advocates.
The problems with a CWA are well known to many policymakers. But while construction unions can’t elect their company’s management team, they can clearly fund campaigns to elect local politicians and keep them in power. Unions are not concerned about the $75 million wasted by the inefficiencies and higher costs they produce.
Special interest favoritism that rewards union contractors and workers at the expense of nonunion contractors and workers should have no place in public policy. The better policy would be one that abandons costly and discriminatory CWAs in favor of fair and open access to public construction projects to foster robust competition, reduce costs and increase public value that favors taxpayers.
Ventura County Taxpayers Association agrees with staff that the proposed CWA should be rejected by the Board of Supervisors as an unnecessary squandering of more than $75 million taxpayer dollars.
• David Grau is president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association.