High-speed rail in bed with unions

Dec. 7, 2012

By Katy Grimes

There have been warnings since Proposition 1A was passed in 2008 that the rail authority would award construction contracts to union contractors, providing a bidding advantage to companies that agree to sign a Project Labor Agreement.

Now, it appears that the High-Speed Rail Authority is finalizing these predicted plans.

While the public has not seen a formal policy, many in the non-union labor field have had suspicions.

The Northern California Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors has been predicting since 2008 that a scheme was already underway to give unions a monopoly on the rail construction.

Most interesting is how this is done.

The Scheme

At the board meeting of the California High Speed Rail Authority Thursday, an item to approve a policy concerning “enhanced community benefits” for construction of the high speed rail system was on the agenda.

“Construction industry observers believe the High Speed Rail Authority will use this policy as justification for contractors to sign a Project Labor Agreement with unions for construction of the rail system, including related structures such as stations,” said Kevin Dayton, a Project Labor Agreement expert, formerly with the ABC, and now with the Dayton Public Policy Institute.

Dayton explained that this “community benefits” policy may seem innocuous on the surface because it is supposed to to be a work program to enhance employment opportunities.

The “community benefits” employment list includes economically disadvantaged and low-income workers, veterans, youth, unemployed, homeless, single parents, and even people with criminal records, Dayton said. This High-Speed Rail employment policy claims to “ensure that California benefits as much as possible.”

But according to Dayton, while the Community Benefits policy for High-Speed Rail may sound good in theory, in reality it is the plan for unions to get the work under a Project Labor Agreement.

“Unions will claim workers are dispatched out of ‘local hiring halls’ and a ‘Helmets to Hardhats’ veterans program under a Project Labor Agreement,” Dayton said. The rail authority board even sent out a press release after the Thursday board meeting announcing that they “adopted a hiring policy targeting California communities and disadvantaged workers.”

At the rail board meeting Thursday, the staff emphasized that it would help with the hiring of veterans and the adoption of pre-apprenticeship programs. But Dayton said that these are customary union talking points when pushing Project Labor Agreements.


The High Speed Rail Authority plans on awarding construction contracts using a ”design-build” bidding procedure, which means it can use rather subjective criteria as the basis for selecting its construction contractors, Dayton said. Using this process, the rail authority doesn’t even have to consider the lowest bidder of the project.

The importance of outing the High-Speed Rail Authority’s plans is because they knowingly are avoiding the high-profile public scrutiny process that a legislative hearing or legislation requires. Perhaps more importantly, public officials and elected lawmakers get to avoid voting on this policy.

Without the public vetting process that most legislation receives, Dayton said that the public will remain unaware of the High-Speed Rail’s decision to use Project Labor Agreements, as well as the long-term repercussions and excessive costs to taxpayers.

Well-used tactic

Dayton said this is not a new tactic. “The same tactic was used to get a PLA on the San Diego Convention Center and the new George Deukmejian Long Beach Courthouse,” Dayton said. “They work behind the scenes to get the design-build contractor to sign the PLA, so it is never public. And, it appears that the contractor voluntarily agreed to the PLA.”

“The City of San Diego and the California Administrative Office of the Courts even claim that the Project Labor Agreements are not a matter of public record,” he said. “But Clark Construction, the contractor awarded the public contracts, declines to provide them to the public.”

Dayton has been warning about this scheme for several years. In January 2011, Dayton wrote one of many stories about it on The Truth About PLAs.

“Construction union meddling with the California High-Speed Rail project began as far back as February 2003, when construction unions pushed for the enactment of Assembly Bill 1506, a bill that required the High-Speed Rail Authority to operate a ‘Labor Compliance Program,'” Dayton said. “As reported in the October 1, 2003 Merced Sun-Star, then-State Senator Jeff Denham asked soon-to-be-recalled Gov. Gray Davis to veto the bill because it could lead to a Project Labor Agreement. Rumors continued to circulate in the next six years about the unions targeting the project for a PLA.” But Davis predictably signed the union friendly bill into law.

Lo and behold, Dayton was right. But it got worse. In March 2011, the State Senate Rules Committee appointed Bob Balgenorth, then-president of the union-run California State Building and Construction Trades Council, to a vacant seat on the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors. His influence on the HSR board all but solidified that the construction projects would all be done with union labor, driving the cost of the project unnecessarily high.

Dayton added that any chance of local workers getting hired to work on the rail construction projects was never a priority, and that most of the labor would not only come from other parts of the state, but would come from out of state.

Dayton even identified the construction companies involved with the High-Speed Rail project PLA scheme.

PLA alert

The Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction also sent out an alert Thursday warning that the High-Speed Rail Authority was planning on voting on the union-only construction agreements:

“PLA ALERT!: CA High Speed Rail Authority to Vote on Union-Only Project Labor Agreement TODAY!

“Today at 10:00am at City Hall in Sacramento, the California High Speed Rail Authority will be doing something we have warned about ever since this ill conceived, deceitfully presented plan to create a slower and more expensive way to travel verses flying was concocted: Have this 19th Century choo-choo train built with union-only labor by way of a Project Labor Agreement or ‘PLA’.  That should help keep this project’s runaway costs down.”

Dayton, the Associated Builders and Contractors and the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction have been warning taxpayers, business owners, and workers for years that the California High Speed Rail Authority is a prime target for a union-only Project Labor Agreement (PLA).

And the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown have ignored these warnings.

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