Michael Theriault headshot

By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer

We went a long while without seeing the Associated Builders and Contractors, or ABC, show itself in San Francisco politics. Its last appearance in the scaly flesh had been in debates over our first project labor agreement – PLA – with the San Francisco Unified School District.

Now it has returned, speaking at a 6 November meeting of City government’s Local Business Enterprise Advisory Committee.

After so long an absence, the ABC may be unfamiliar to many a City politician and even to many a Building Trades member. A national organization, the ABC espouses, in its own words, “a free-enterprise approach to construction based solely on merit, regardless of labor affiliation” – as though merit were not centrally important to the unionized Trades. It believes “any kind of … wage fixing, in either the public or private sector, [is] detrimental to our system of free enterprise” – that is, it opposes prevailing wage laws that protect local businesses and workers from depredation by exploitative contractors from low-wage areas. It believes “the law should protect the right of employees to work regardless of … membership or non-membership in a labor organization” – that is, it backs “right-to-work” laws, known more accurately among us as “right-to-work-for-less” laws, that allow freeloaders to benefit from union contracts while making good contracts harder to win.

It collaborates with Republican politicians to oppose or undo laws protecting worker rights, safety, and living standards.

The merit of San Francisco’s unionized Building Trades workforce has been demonstrated consistently from the City’s rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake and fire, through construction of the Panama Pacific exposition whose centenary we will celebrate next year, to the present, as our hands build scores of major projects and the City’s future. San Francisco has voted repeatedly to fix wage standards, whether through this November’s landmark Proposition J on minimum wage, through living wage laws for City contractors, or through prevailing wage laws in City construction. San Francisco Building Trades unions have guarded worker rights and living standards and have brought many thousands of minority workers into good careers through agreements that require “membership … in a labor organization.”

And San Francisco is a Democratic city, where now no Republican holds elected office.

ABC values are not San Francisco values.

The ABC returned to San Francisco because we are discussing a possible citywide PLA policy with Supervisor Mark Farrell.

The Local Business Enterprise Advisory Committee, before which the ABC appeared, is so obscure that it is not listed among the agencies on the City’s website. It is not listed even on the website of the City’s Human Rights Commission, under which it serves. Its own webpage shows no meeting later than 2012 – and yet here it was, meeting in late 2014, with the PLA policy on its agenda, and the ABC knew of the meeting, and the Building Trades, whose proposed policy was on the agenda, had not been informed.

Someone in City government invited the ABC and made a point of not inviting us.

It would be hard to believe that this was anyone closely associated with Mayor Lee, whose administration has consistently practiced inclusiveness in its deliberations.

Building Trades advances in this supposedly labor-friendly city have rarely come without opposition from within City government, however. When I was hired from a general foreman’s job to organize for the Iron Workers in 1999, for example, I was told I shouldn’t waste time seeking enforcement of prevailing wage from the City; it simply didn’t happen. Then the Building Trades sued to obtain enforcement, and the result was the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.

It isn’t important that we know who in City government is working against us.

It is important that we expect that someone will, and that we are ready to fight.

In that fight, we may well see the ABC again. It is clever enough to know that it is unlikely to defeat a PLA policy outright here. Every present member of the Board of Supervisors has pledged to support PLAs.

The ABC will instead try to gut any PLA policy by advocating provisions that make the policy meaningless, as it has elsewhere. It will propose maximizing the number of employees non-union contractors – who by law can work under public-sector PLAs, and often do – can use without hiring from our halls. It will insist that non-union employers under PLAs should not have to pay into union benefit funds on behalf of their own workers. It will demand its own seat at the negotiating table.

It will try to limit coverage of work under PLAs by advocating for high “thresholds” – that is, contract dollar values under which a PLA would not apply.

Just so, the ABC in recent debates on a citywide PLA policy in Martinez spoke in favor of thresholds of $10 - $25 million.

Martinez ignored the ABC and made the threshold $250,000.

And Long Beach recently ignored the ABC and approved a citywide PLA policy with thresholds of $500,000 for multi-trade work and $25,000 for single-trade work.

And what will labor-friendly San Francisco do? Listen to the ABC, or to the Building Trades?

This should be no fight at all, but be prepared.

Organized Labor


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