In Irvine California, in 2023, discriminating against whole classes of people is still acceptable.
That is the impression we have after just discovering that Irvine’s Mayor Farrah Khan has been pushing a union-only Project Labor Agreement with some of her big labor special interest supporters that would cover all city-funded construction in Irvine worth $500,000 or more for five years.
This is outrageous on two levels.
First, who authorized Mayor Khan to “negotiate” a fully crafted PLA behind closed doors with labor unions? Why would any public servant do something like this with no oversight or public input? My organization, formed 25 years ago to fight the discrimination and waste of PLAs, has submitted a Public Record Act request to get to the bottom of this and find out exactly what is going on and who is involved.
PLAs are documents that seek to do what the marketplace has failed to do for construction unions over the past 40 years: gain back lost market share. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 16% of the California construction workforce is unionized — this despite record employment in the industry, thanks to a booming economy, that sees highly skilled trade workers as prizes worth a premium when it comes to pay.
Simply put, there is more work than there are workers, yet the vast majority of construction workers in America, California, and Orange County choose to be union-free.
Big labor special interests, however, don’t really care much for the market and workers’ rights. They know what is best for workers and what is best is using elected officials to bend the market in the unions’ favor by using your hard-earned tax dollars to force those workers to be union. How? PLAs are really about four key provisions found within them, and the PLA that Mayor Khan and unions have crafted for Irvine is just like every other boilerplate PLA in this regard.
First, non-union contractors can only use five of their current employees. All the rest must come from the union. Those five workers must in turn pay union dues and pay into union health, welfare and pension plans they will never vest in. This is wage theft. Finally, all the young men and women in state-approved union-free apprentice programs are explicitly excluded from being able to work.
In short, Mayor Khan has secretly worked with her main donors, unions, to craft an “agreement” that gives those same unions a monopoly on all work in the city by making it all but impossible for non-union companies and workers to work.
In 2008, Orange County became the first county in California to ban the use of PLAs. It was followed by 11 other entities across the state and 26 states across the country in banning their use. In Orange County, only the cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim have implemented such a discriminatory policy. In Anaheim’s case, the issue was pushed by the disgraced former Mayor Harry Sidu. Is this what Irvine wants to emulate?
What will the results be should Irvine choose to give unions a monopoly? Reduced bidders and increased costs of up to 20%. With times so good right now contractors will simply do what they have done with other corrupt urban entities that have adopted PLAs: Go elsewhere to bid work while Irvine taxpayers will be left footing the bill.
The Irvine City Council still has time to do the right thing here and it starts with holding a study session that allows the council to hear from both sides, not just the ones Mayor Khan has listed to. Local contractors, workers and apprentices deserve to be heard and we hope the council agrees.
Exclusion, corporatism and monopolies have no place in Irvine in 2023. Irvine needs to continue bidding its work in an open and competitive manner that doesn’t discriminate against any group.
Eric Christen is the executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction. Formed 21 years ago, CFEC is a statewide organization comprised of union and non-union construction companies dedicated to keeping construction work open for all workers and apprentices. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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