Project Labor Agreements Put Local People FIRST

by Tefere Gebre, Executive Director, Orange County Labor Federation

The assault on Orange County by Colorado-based zealot Eric Christensen and Supervisor John Moorlach on behalf of anti-worker contractors couldn’t come at a worse time for Orange County residents.  The County is wracked by unemployment and many working families are having a hard time making ends meet.  Making sure that OC construction projects are built by local residents is critical to economic recovery and long-term growth.  Government construction contracts can be a key component to rebuilding our economy, especially if jobs go to local people and money circulates close to home.

Project labor agreements, or PLAs, the subject of Mr. Christensen’s focus, require that government contract jobs be filled with local workers. PLAs set the terms and conditions for construction projects.  They ensure workers have training and medical benefits.  They are also the only legal way to ensure that a certain percentage of the workers hired for a project live in targeted communities.

PLAs have been used for more than a century and are currently being utilized on many projects, both public and private, across the country.  In fact, earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed an executive order encouraging the use of PLAs on federal projects, saying they promote efficient and timely completion of projects.   Because they include local hiring and outline the terms and conditions for construction projects, PLAs remove the competitive advantage for contractors who exploit workers.  PLAs address the demands for a skilled and trained workforce while providing career paths for vulnerable and disadvantaged residents.

Construction is dangerous and technology is changing quickly.  The men and women of Orange County’s construction trades unions spend millions of dollars a year on training. Construction unions run state-of-the-art apprenticeship programs that are funded through their collective bargaining agreements.  Together, OC unions and the county’s construction contractors give thousands of young people, veterans, and historically underserved members of our communities the classroom and field training necessary to construct the infrastructure that will continue to provide critical water, energy, and transportation for our county.  Apprenticeship programs are the path to ensure we have the skilled and trained construction workforce to build the communities in which we raise our families, care for our sick, educate our children and run our businesses.  Unions are successful at recruiting, educating, and graduating people of color and women in their apprenticeship programs.

Craft unions have worked so hard to get PLAs out of a desire to create career pathways for local residents who can become apprentices — journey-level crafts people who can support their families with their lifelong careers.  PLAs are the legal avenue to bring local community residents into apprenticeship programs and make sure they have access to careers, not just temporary jobs.

Across the state of California, Eric Christensen has been unsuccessful in convincing elected leaders and community leaders that PLAs are not the best choices for local workers, businesses, and governments.  That is why he is working with Supervisor Moorlach and the Board of Supervisors to try to pass this ordinance, which, if passed, will face an uphill legal battle.  Recently Christensen took his dog and pony show to the City of Chula Vista in San Diego County.   He did not have support on the Council so he and anti-union contractors spent two years and a great deal of money using paid signature-gatherers to qualify an initiative that is overly-broad in scope but that is intended to prohibit project labor agreements on city-funded construction projects.  After two unsuccessful attempts to qualify the initiative, it will finally go before City of Chula Vista voters in June.   Not only are labor unions opposing this effort, but so is the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce.

Why are the Chamber and labor aligned against this initiative?  Fiscal conservatives know that if taxpayers do not pay up front, they pay on the back end. Construction workers and their families are more likely to be uninsured than any other employment classification in the state, use emergency room care, and have to rely on other social benefit programs.  Furthermore, there are many companies and developers who regularly use PLAs for their construction projects.  Local business leaders do not want to chase these companies from their city.  More important, many construction projects are infused with federal stimulus funding.  That funding comes with local hire and job creation standards, which can be implemented via PLAs.  Prohibiting PLAs could very well mean putting projects on hold or putting the area out of the running for stimulus dollars. That is the opposite of what we need to do right now.

County, local, and state governments across the country are embracing PLAs in order to address construction quality and require the hiring of local workers. In construction, collective bargaining agreements make the difference between a job and a career. PLAs make sense for public works projects because they promote a planned approach to complex construction projects and allow contractors to more accurately predict labor costs and schedule production timelines, while reducing taxpayer risks to unsafe and poorly constructed projects.  PLAs are good for Orange County.  Instead of working with an unscrupulous contractor front group to eliminate PLAs, the Board of Supervisors should be using PLAs to put local workers first in Orange County.


  1. Oh! Ouch!

    With over 100 merit shop employees, contractors, and association reps in attendance, the Orange County Board of Supervisors in a 5-0 vote banned Project Labor Agreements with an ordinance. This precedent setting vote puts into law the Supervisors’ stated support for open competition, non-discrimination, and the best quality construction at the best price for taxpayers.

  2. It is obvious that Mr. Gebre’s livelihood is funded by organized labor. The same old arguments, the same old misleading rhetoric.

    PLA’s are about two issues, and only two issues: 1. Unions want them in place in order to ensure that union members perform the work, and 2. So all fringe benefit money and dues go into union coffers. That’s it, plain and simple.

    There have been several instances in So.California where organized labor is offered “everything” contained in a PLA (local hire guarantees, labor stabilitity, prevailing wage, etc.) except for the two provisions listed above where a contractor can use his own work force, and the money follows the man meaning fringe money doesn’t have to flow into “union” benefit programs. These modified or clean PLA’s are rejected by organized labor 100% of the time.

    You have to give big labor credit. They know that a PLA will not sell if they tell the public what it really stands for. So they shift the focus of the argument.

    Once the people of Chula Vista learn the issues, a PLA ban will be implemented there too. This is America where we believe in free and open competition. Where all men are created equal. Where we have a dream that all persons will be judged on the content of their character – not whether they are part of a small minority of union members. Quotas, discrimination, and a semi-socialist agenda should never be tolerated.

  3. It’s a sad day when a board sells it’s citezens out with a 5-0 vote. Big business loves this. Orange County can expect illegal immigrants and low wage workers from Arizona to be working on future construction projects in Orange County. Expect delays, and additional cost on all projects, as your supervisors prefer low wage, low quality labor to good workmanship.

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