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Controversial Project Labor Agreement for West Valley Mission Community College District Approved

A Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with the Santa Clara & San Benito Counties Building and Construction Trades Council as well as a $698 million bond measure was approved at an Aug. 7 special meeting of the West Valley Mission Community College District (WVMCCD)’s Board of Trustees.

Even amid concerns and opposition, the PLA received a vote of 5-2 in favor.

“People from both sides expressed their opinions and finally the voting was in favor,” said Patrick Schmitt, Chancellor, WVMCCD. “We already had a pilot project under an approved PLA agreement and the results of the pilot program were very positive. Hence, the Board expressed an interest in continuing with PLA. The PLA for the projected bond projects would be placed on the November 2018 ballot.”

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The renovation of the Applied Arts and Science building was designated as the ‘pilot’ project on Jan. 13, 2013. Its construction started on Sept. 8, 2014 and the notice of completion was approved by the Board only on July 11, 2017.

The delay in completion and difference in cost estimation of this pilot project are some of the reasons put forward by those opposing the PLA.

“It’s really disappointing to see WVMCCD Board of Trustees consider adopting such an arcane hiring practice meant to benefit only one group over the greater good of the citizens,” said Nicole Goehring, Community and Government Relations Director, Associated Builders and Contractors Northern California Chapter (ABC NorCal).

ABC NorCal, a construction trade association of nearly 500 construction and construction related firms representing 22,000 merit shop construction workers, is one of the major groups that opposed PLA at the Board’s special meeting.

“The pilot project in itself is a failed project,” said Goehring. “Where though it was estimated at $11,500,000 when the contract was advertised, winning bid came in at $18,661,000 and later the final cost of the project with change orders was $20,527,100, almost double the estimate. The independent evaluation of the pilot project could not identify any benefits purported by the unions.”

Meanwhile, the Board has a separate perfomance evaluation report for its pilot project that states that many factors influenced the outcome of the project like regulatory factors, local governance, project-specific factors and economic conditions.

“There is no conclusive evidence that PLA had adverse or favorable impact on observable metrics for the pilot project,” said Schmitt. “Many other factors, like regional construction market conditions, have had a disproportionate impact on cost. Unknown conditions and owner-directed changes played a dominant role in schedule variance.”

Further he said, “As a result of PLA, the district witnessed minimal administrative overhead and workplace disruptions were non-existent. There was no impact on project schedule and local participation on this project was well within norms. Stakeholder opinions regarding the PLA, its impact and efficacy appear to be pre-established with little or no empirical basis.”

There’s not just the cost factor. The anti-PLA concerns are spread across a wide range of issues including employee rights, dues and representation. According to them, the PLA creates participation barriers for local, minority and women-owned construction employers and their employees. Workers must pay significant union dues and all apprentices must come from state approved union programs making it tough for those from state-approved merit shop programs.

“The spirit of entrepreneurism is blatantly dismissed at WVMCCD leaving opportunities only for a small number of workers who have found their way into union construction programs,” added Goehring. “Eroding opportunities for smaller minority construction companies and their workers to expand their local businesses and gain invaluable work experience on taxpayer-funded projects in their community. The opportunities are getting limited and great number of qualified local contractors are sidelined.”

However, it is the security and functionality of PLA that were seen as major benefits by PLA advocates.

“When we are investing such a huge amount,” said Schmitt. “PLA offers the security in terms of protection in working conditions, pay, benefits and equity. When it is a $698 million bond like this, our primary concerns are stability and security, and PLA offers all of that. There are no negative implications to it and most of all PLAs have been successful so far.

“Also, we have no discrimination in work delegation,” he added. “The smaller projects that are of minor nature or have more flexibility won’t have PLA.”

Considering the PLA approval as an unfortunate step that would push away well-paying career opportunities within the local community, the ABC NorCal group currently plans to prepare its arguments for the upcoming ballot.

Meanwhile, the WVMCCD Board of Trustees continues to favor the PLA and expects its upcoming PLA projects to be successful and efficient.

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Owens Corning

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