Michael Theriault headshot

Supervisor Mark Farrell has introduced legislation that would require use of a project labor agreement, or PLA, on City-funded work of more than $1 million, except at the "enterprise agencies" of Port, Airport, Public Utilities Commission, and Municipal Transportation Authority.

Little direct opposition has surfaced. Instead, some in City government and out want the policy to apply only to projects of much more than $1 million.

Here are ten reasons for a citywide PLA policy and a coverage threshold of no more than $1 million.

1. Better enforcement of wage standards
Although diligent, the City's Office of Labor Standards Enforcement can't watch every corner of every jobsite all the time. Public PLAs can't and don't exclude work by non-union contractors. Instead, they require all contractors to live by our master agreements and do some of their hiring from our halls. With our stewards on the job and our members working side-by-side with regular "core" employees of non-union contractors, it is far easier to track hours and confirm payment of the prevailing wage required by City ordinance. Covering more work under PLAs means better enforcement of wage standards.

2. Less burden on public services
Health and retirement benefits are scarce among non-union contractors, especially smaller ones. Prevailing wage laws do not require them, and the small size of most non-union contractors on City work eliminates even the requirements of Obama's now-threatened Affordable Care Act. Non-union workers under PLAs can qualify quickly for our health benefits and start the process of vesting in our pensions. Some choose to become our members to continue and facilitate this process. They are less likely to become a burden to the City now and in the future, then.

3. Competition through efficiency, not wage underpayment
When wage standards are better enforced, contractors must compete not through underpayment of wages, but through efficiency. Responsible contractors benefit; irresponsible contractors suffer. Irresponsibility is hardly confined to wage underpayment. PLAs mean a more responsible and efficient City contractor base.

4. Consistently higher quality of work
Longtime inspectors on City work have sometimes remarked privately that quality of non-union work can be as good as ours, but is often far from it. Non-union formal training is uncommon, and when non-union workers have been formally trained, often it has been in home countries where means and methods of construction differ from ours. A day's work in construction consists of myriad individual actions and decisions. Inspectors can't watch them all, but can see only a portion of the final product. When non-union contractors are obliged to employ our union workers, most of whom have passed through our apprenticeships and had regular opportunities for journeylevel training, quality of work is consistently elevated.

5. More apprenticeship opportunities
Under former director Pat Mulligan, CityBuild Academy cemented relationships with most Building Trades that gained City residents placement in our apprenticeships. Unless City work comes with requirements to hire through our halls, our apprentices are not guaranteed participation in it. Our PLAs provide this guarantee. The more work PLAs cover, the stronger the guarantee.

6. Higher-quality apprentice training
Few non-union apprenticeships serve San Francisco. Fewer still approach ours in quality of training. By requiring hiring from our apprenticeships, PLAs assure the City a long-term workforce much abler to serve its needs.

7. Timelier project delivery
While many factors may delay project completion, in ensuring a more efficient and responsible contractor base and a higher-trained workforce PLAs eliminate two possible factors.

8. Workforce networks
Although a PLA policy in San Francisco will focus on developing and employing a local workforce, City work will sometimes need access even for smaller work to more workers than are available locally. The Building Trades have national skilled workforce networks the non-union sector can't match.

9. Veteran hiring
PLAs require development of veteran hiring through the Helmets to Hardhats program. Without a PLA, this is not a City requirement.

10. Healing old divisions
For almost a century, the City's Building Trades and many Chinese-American contractors were in conflict. In recent decades unions and Chinese-American contractors have worked to heal old divisions. Many of those contractors are now union-signatory. Some signatory contractors are quite small. Nonetheless we have heard fears that PLAs will exclude non-union contractors and prevent small contractors – and particularly minority-owned contractors – from growing through City work.

Neither fear is justified. Non-union contractors small and large have successfully worked under our public-sector PLAs. They have simply had to live under our master agreements and do some of their hiring from our halls.

A $1 million threshold for PLA coverage allows small non-union contractors to perform small work outside of a PLA, but provides an intermediate process to assist in their growth and in growing their relationship with us. They get readier access to a trained workforce; this lets them take on larger work and trains them in our hiring and benefit systems without requiring a permanent commitment. It lets them see what our apprentices learn and what our workers can do.

The result of this in other PLAs has been that contractors become union-signatory and grow.

Why should anyone fear this?

Organized Labor


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