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Research Paper on Project Labor Agreements in California

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The 2012 election cycle was greatly important for the United States. Not only was the presidency determined, but there were also many propositions, especially in the State of California, that were passed and vetoed by citizens. This sample research paper included in the many essay writing services from Ultius deals with Prop A of San Diego, which specifically revolved around municipal governance and labor laws. The writer concluded that voting ‘No’ on the proposition was the wisest choice; however, the bill ended up passing by a fairly wide margin.

Voting “No” on San Diego’s Prop A (2012): Don’t Ban Project Labor Agreements

In the upcoming election, San Diego voters face a number of decisions that will affect municipal governance in San Diego. One such decision is the upcoming ballot measure: Proposition A, the so-called “Fair and Open Construction Ordinance". This measure would generally prohibit the city of San Diego from requiring contractors to use Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), except where otherwise required by law, or where the lack of a PLA would jeopardize the receipt of state or federal funding. In addition, the measure would require the Office of the Mayor to post any contract valued over $25,000 on a city website (“Proposition A”). 

The ramifications of passing Proposition A

The latter condition of Proposition A is reasonably unobjectionable - it is nearly impossible to find a reasonable and unbiased taxpayer that is in favor a political philosophy consisting of reduced transparency regarding the manner in which municipal funds are spent. However, the former portion of the measure – which effectively prohibits the city of San Diego from using PLAs when negotiating construction (or similar) labor projects – is itself far less transparent, and far more controversial. If enough San Diego voters vote “yes” on Proposition A during the upcoming June election, then they will do their city and its workers a great disservice. Voting “Yes” on Proposition A is objectionable because justifications offered by industry groups in support of the measure are misleading, because it is likely to cause San Diego to lose money as a result of state regulation and implementation costs, and (given that PLAs have never even been used by the city of San Diego) because it represents a proxy for attacks on organized labor and politicians that support unions. For these reasons, citizens of San Diego should vote “No” on Proposition A. 

Project Labor Agreements (PLAs)

The PLA is a form of collective bargaining agreement between a contractor and the entity that employs their services to complete a particular project. The PLA is a mechanism intended to construct

“a system for labor relations management, stability, and accountability for (generally) long-term projects, and is employed in both public and private sector contexts" (Coupe 99).

Bradford Coupe notes in the Journal of Labor Research that prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the “Boston Harbor” case, PLAs were largely perceived as unremarkable – but the success of PLAs favorable to unions in Boston established PLAs as a target for anti-labor groups (100). Attacks on PLAs generally claim that PLAs result in favoritism towards unions or union contractors, or that PLAs result in unsuitably high costs for public sector projects (Coupe 104-107). These issues have embroiled the use of PLAs across the nation, and certainly color the views of Proposition A supporters in San Diego. 

Perceived problems with PLAs

Consider the position of representatives from two of San Diego’s contractors associations – the San Diego Chapter of the Association of Builders and Contractors, and the Associated General Contractors of San Diego. In an interview with the editorial staff of the Union Tribune newspaper, representatives from these industry groups claim that PLAs reduce competition by forcing union rules onto contractors, and increase the overall costs of projects. They insist that their associations’ members do not want to deal with the union rules associated with PLAs (which means that when PLAs are used, only union contractors tend to bid), and point to the use of PLAs by the San Diego Unified School District as a factor in higher costs for the district (“Yes on Prop A”). San Diego’s Proposition A opponents seem to be expressing the very same views that Coupe identifies at a national level. 

As Coupe indicates, these views are flawed (and perhaps somewhat disingenuous). First, competition in the marketplace is not unduly restricted by the use of PLAs. Though it may be the case:

“that nonunion contractors are less willing than union bidders to meet the specifications [of PLAs], ” as Coupe observes, competitive bidding does not entail “equality among bidders in their ability to perform, only equality in the opportunity to bid” (105).

Misleading criticism of PLAs

Even the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation – an anti-PLA group – admits that even under PLAs, nonunion employees of contractors can refrain from full union membership, may pay reduced or no union dues, and cannot be discriminated against if hiring is conducted through union hiring halls (“What is a PLA?”). As Coupe points out – arguments about higher costs resulting from PLA use ignore proven scenarios where PLAs provide exceptional cost-cutting capabilities for long-term projects (106). As such, it appears the justifications offered to the public by these industry groups are misleading. It would be unfortunate for San Diego citizens to vote for Proposition A on account of these arguments, given their dubious grounding in reality. 

Financial risks for the city of San Diego

If the citizens of San Diego decide to pass Proposition A in June, the city stands to lose a significant share of state funding for construction projects. State Controller John Chiang pointed out this month that passing Proposition A would result in massive losses of state funding for the city of San Diego as a result of SB 829; for scale, the city received $158 million dollars of such state funding last year (Cavanaugh et. al). In addition, former San Diego City Councilwoman, Donna Frye, argues that the Proposition A ballot measure hides a number of hidden costs, both real (i.e. $500,000 to implement the online contract transparency, plus $450,000 in annual maintenance) and potential: 

“[Proposition A proponents] want to use a smokescreen of accountability that’s going to cost taxpayers $500,000 up front, then it’s going to cost them $450,000 annually, then they want to put the taxpayer dollars at risk, hundreds of millions of dollars in construction funding from the state…heaving the public under the bus…to go and have this battle and continue this court battle again” (Cavanaugh et. al). 

Though the costs of implementing an online transparency program for city contracts is laudable (albeit expensive), it appears that in this market structure, the citizens of San Diego stand to lose access to large sums of money that they are otherwise entitled to if Proposition A passes. Further, anticipated litigation over the legality of Proposition A represents a risk of unknown (but assembly significant) costs to the city and taxpayers. 

Suspect claims of Proposition A

The claims of cost-savings offered by anti-PLA activists are themselves questionable. Murtaza Baxamusa of the Family Housing Corporation points out that many Proposition A supporters claim the measure will result in cost savings given evidence from a particular peer-reviewed study – yet the study was not peer reviewed, and the professor whose methodology the study borrowed indicated that:

“[the study] used my methodology but messed it up because [it] didn’t do the controls that are necessary” (“No on Prop A”).

When combined with uncertain (but seemingly inevitable) financial costs for the city, these suspect claims regarding financial benefits do not establish a solid case for a trade off. Even if proponents of Proposition A could provide reliable cost-savings predictions, they would need to be quite large and very certain in order to offset the potential loss of funds the city of San Diego stands to lose. 

Much ado about nothing?

Perhaps the strangest factor about Proposition A is the fact that, until its appearance on the ballot, it addresses what was a non-existent issue for the city of San Diego. Critics of the measure insistently reference that the city of San Diego has never even used a PLA (“Vote for Prop A”). It may seem as if the city is seeking to solve an issue that doesn’t exist. And to an extent, this is exactly what is happening. But behind Proposition A lies a deeper agenda: a general attack on organized labor and its associates. In Ocean Beach’s OB Rag, Doug Porter argues that Proposition A represents nothing more than “astroturfing” (fake grassroots political engagement), whereby the interests of right-wing tea party idealists and industry groups are being pushed under the guide of a citizen driven ballot proposition (“San Diego’s Proposition A”). This rings true with Coupe’s conclusion in the Journal of Labor Research:

“Underneath the claims of preclusion from work opportunities or the alleged disadvantage to the taxpayers or the alleged discrimination against the workers is the bedrock resolve to the nonunion contractors have against entering into any union relationship, however limited, even at the expense of forgoing work" (109).

Coupe’s assessment of the situation rings true when one considers a recent editorial published by the Union Tribune’s editorial board, which (aside from the headline that denounces Proposition A opponents as “bullies”) claims that the “real problem” Proposition A sets out to resolve is the “power of unions” – which ostensibly led “union-allied Democrats in the Legislature” to “intimidate voters in San Diego” (“Vote for Prop A”). This editorial seems to confirm Doug Porter’s claim about the nature of Proposition A: Proposition A isn’t about solving a real issue that faces San Diego, but is in fact a move to push an ideological agenda that rejects unions (and their legitimate influence as an interest group) on principle. 

The need to vote against Proposition A

In the upcoming June election, San Diego voters should not vote for ballot Proposition A for the following reasons:

  • Proposition A proponents mistakenly assume that Project Labor Agreements necessarily result in favoritism towards unions by municipal decision-makers, but in fact, PLAs favor any contractor willing to comply (temporarily or not) to PLA terms.
  • Anti-PLA interests often group all PLAs together as “more expensive” than other labor agreements is a hasty overgeneralization; each project ought to be considered on its own to determine whether a PLA could result in cost savings (or not).
  • Proponents of Proposition A would willingly put the taxpayers of San Diego at significant financial risk (due to loss of state funds or potential legal costs) This is not only objectionable from an immediate fiscal standpoint, but leaves far too much uncertainty about the future financial health of the city.
  • It is a solution to a problem that does not exist.

Proposition A is a means for those that are opposed to unionized labor to mount a campaign against unionized labor on principle alone. It pretends that PLAs have created economic development issues affecting democratization problems for San Diego’s city government, even though San Diego’s city government has never utilized a PLA. 


Removing PLAs from the set of options that San Diego’s city government can use when dealing with contractors on grounds of ideology alone is objectionable. Citizens should primarily vote against Proposition A because it wrongfully denies the city the option of using a possibly useful tool. Additionally, citizens should consider voting against Proposition A because it is representative of bad governance – the sort of governance that attempts to smear, silence and exclude opposing viewpoints and interest groups, rather than engaging in reasonable dialogue.

Works Cited

Cavanaugh, Maureen, Joanne Faryon, Pat Finn, and Claire Trageser. "Debate Over Prop A: Should City Ban Project Labor Agreements?" KPBS.org. 7 May 2012. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.kpbs.org/news/2012/may/07/should-city-curtail-project-labor-agreements/>. 

Coupe, Bradford W. "Legal Considerations Affecting the Use of Public Sector Project Labor Agreements: A Proponent’s View." Journal of Labor Research 19.1 (1998): 99-113. Print. 

Porter, Doug. "San Diego’s Proposition A: How to Make a Mountain Out of a Molehill." OB Rag [Ocean Beach] 4 May 2012. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://obrag.org/?p=59602>. 

"Proposition A." SmartVoter.org. League of Women Voters. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.smartvoter.org/2012/06/05/ca/sd/prop/A/>. 

U-T San Diego Editorial Staff, ed. "Vote for Prop. A – Don’t Let Bullies Win." San Diego Union Tribune 12 May 2012. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/may/12/vote-for-prop-a-dont-let-bullies-win/>. 

U-T San Diego Editorial Staff. "No on Prop. A: It's Awful." Editorial. San Diego Union Tribune 12 May 2012. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/may/12/no-on-prop-a/>. 

U-T San Diego Editorial Staff. "Yes on Prop. A: It's Awesome." San Diego Union-Tribune. 12 May 2012. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/may/12/the-case-for-prop-a/>. 

"What Is a Project Labor Agreement and How Does It Affect Workers?" National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.nrtw.org/neutrality/na_6.htm>.

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