Tuesday, May 26, 2009 | The San Diego Unified school board decided Tuesday to tie work on its $2.1 billion facilities bond to a project labor agreement, a controversial step that will shape how workers and apprentices are hired to fix and renovate schools. It will require employers to provide healthcare largely through union plans, sets steep goals for local hiring, and gives apprentices from union programs the first shot at jobs to build their skills.
Project labor agreements typically involve a tit-for-tat in which the school district or other agency sets rules on bidding, such as hiring workers through the union halls, in exchange for the unions’ promise not to strike or stall work.
In the four months since the school board voted to explore such a pact over Proposition S, it exploded into a bitter dispute between construction companies and unions — two of the most muscular players in local politics — divided the citizens charged with overseeing the bond, and put the new school board majority in the crosshairs of sharp editorials, mailers and radio ads.
“I’m not going to be intimidated into not doing the right thing,” school board member Richard Barrera, who voted for the plan, said of the campaign against the labor agreement to the cheers and applause of an auditorium packed with union workers sporting orange stickers reading “Not Just a Job But a Career.” The decision passed narrowly with Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson in support and school board members John de Beck and Katherine Nakamura in opposition.
Opponents hinted that their work was not done. “This is probably the worst (agreement) that I’ve ever seen and the most discriminatory,” said Eric Christen, who led the campaign against the agreement. He added, “The good news for the public is that we do live in a democratic republic” and they could vote against school board members in the next election. Others said their companies would not bid on the bond.
Construction companies donated heavily to help pass the facilities bond last November while a push from the teachers union helped reshape the school board, now tilted towards labor. Some donors said they would not have helped push the bond if they knew a project labor agreement was in the works. Its foes kicked off a campaign through billboards and radio advertisements, arguing that the pact was unfair and could be costly, while proponents plugged it as a way to guarantee that employees get healthcare, avoid work stoppages, and ensure that local workers were hired to revamp local schools.