Desired, But Not Required

Analysis: No one’s talking about a project labor agreement ordinance in Oakland

By Jeff Mitchell

In the midst of one of downtown Oakland’s largest building booms, the issue of whether the city should require developers to use only union labor through project labor agreements (PLAs) remains a politically sensitive issue.

In fact, the overall silence on the issue is deafening.

This public-private give-and-take is the perfect opportunity for cities to require projects meeting certain size or investment value to be subject to a PLA. Additionally, governments seeking to foster construction training and apprenticeship programs and to get more employers to pay prevailing wages to workers turn to PLAs.

Although project labor agreement ordinances are found in municipalities around the state, no such general one exists in Oakland despite the issue surfacing whenever there’s an upturn in building in the city.

City Spokeswoman Karen Boyd confirmed that no local law on PLAs exists in Oakland. “It’s project by project. On purely private projects without city funding, the city cannot require PLAs, although some developers do initiate PLAs without being required to do so,” Boyd said in an email.

PLAs are found, however, throughout Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties in specific government-related projects such as the redevelopment of the former Oakland Army Base, and in many school districts.

In the private sector, PLA’s have been in use for several years on complex construction projects in order to achieve political and regulatory peace, in addition to receiving higher quality by skilled workers delivered on deadline.

Besides the Army base, PLAs have been used in the public sector successfully by the Port of Oakland, the Oakland and San Francisco international airports, BART, local school districts, reservoirs, wastewater treatments and other complex construction projects.

Within the complex world of urban development, rare is the project that doesn’t seek zoning or regulatory variances, thus opening itself to requirements from a city or county government.

These requirements can range from adopting a full PLA to adopting prevailing wages (prevailing wages are also sometimes required through ordinances), apprentice or job training programs, and paying for new city infrastructure around the site such as intersections, sidewalks and intersections.

The impact of citywide PLAs go far beyond a specific project, according to Scott Littlehale, senior research analyst for the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council.

“Too often, developers attempt to take short-cuts, cutting deals with construction contractors who make zero investment in the ‘human capital’ of their workforces. That undercuts the stability of the East Bay’s middle class, which puts a wide range of local goods and services-providing businesses and their employees also at risk.

“The appropriate policy response is to ensure that developers don't pump up profits at the expense of our local economy. We need to continue to develop and re-develop real estate, but we should ensure that such redevelopment includes investment in the people who perform economically risky and physically hazardous construction work,” Littlehale said in an email.

Ken Jacobs, chairman of UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, agreed. “The evidence shows that when PLAs are implemented, projects tend to come in on time and on budget. PLAs and prevailing wages pay for themselves by attracting and retaining higher-trained workforces that produce higher-quality work. Moreover, those trained workers tend to stay in the industry over longer periods of time and that helps the economy grow,” Jacobs said during a telephone interview.

Jeff Mitchell coordinates The Conduit’s news content.