Sacramento's new downtown sports arena is barely a dream at this point, with no financing in place. But already a political fight is breaking out over who would get to build it.
A business group is pushing a pair of ballot initiatives attacking "project labor agreements" umbrella contracts that effectively steer the bulk of the work on construction projects to union contractors.
The initiatives would prohibit such agreements on taxpayer-funded projects, including the new arena, in the city and county of Sacramento. A similar ban was approved last summer by Placer County supervisors.
The arena "is one of our major targets for doing this," said Eric Christen, an anti-union activist whose group is called Fair & Open Competition Sacramento.
A city consultant has pegged the arena's cost at $387 million. Christen's group, in its press materials, says the price could jump to $450 million if unions "get a monopoly to build it."
The initiative probably wouldn't go to the ballot until next June. But already the issue is starting to create some friction. Christen's group took note that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson this week appointed California labor leader Bob Balgenorth an outspoken advocate of project labor agreements (or PLAs) to the executive committee of the regional task force attempting to get the new arena built. Matt Kelly, another labor leader who supports PLAs, was named to the task force, too.
Balgenorth "is definitely Mr. PLA," said Dina Kimble of Royal Electric, a Sacramento contractor working with Christen's group.
Balgenorth, who runs the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, said he wouldn't be involved in negotiating a PLA for the arena. That would be the responsibility of the Sacramento chapter of the council. But he's ready to take on Christen's group.
"People are going to fight them," he said. PLA's "have become an accepted method of doing business." Among other things, PLA's include no-strike guarantees and help make big construction projects go smoothly, he said.
Kelly, head of the Sacramento building trades council, said area labor unions will likely seek some form of PLA for the arena, although discussions haven't gotten very far. Among other things, the labor group wants to make sure most of the construction jobs would go to area workers, he said.
Johnson has sparred with many of the region's unions but said this week that "labor is going to benefit" from the arena project and he wanted a significant union presence on the task force.
"We need business and labor to come together, working together for a common goal," the mayor said. "Often they're at odds, and I don't think that needs to be the case."
Advocates for the arena say it could create more than 4,000 construction jobs. Without a new arena, the Sacramento Kings have been given the green light by the NBA to leave town.
PLAs don't actually require the work to be done by union contractors. But workers generally must be paid union-scale wages and benefits.
Labor leaders said it's a myth that PLAs raise costs. Kelly said publicly funded projects in the city and county must pay their workers the so-called "prevailing wage" anyway whether a PLA is in effect or not. A prevailing wage is roughly comparable to a union wage.
But the PLA could discourage some nonunion contractors from bidding on the project. Without some of the big contractors in the game, the competitive bidding process falters and costs go up, Christen said.
The area's largest electrical contractor, Rex Moore Electrical Contractors & Engineers, "won't bid a job that has a project labor agreement," said Greg Anderson, the company's human resources director.
Under a PLA, most workers have to be hired through a union hiring hall, Anderson said. That disqualifies the vast majority of Rex Moore's workforce, he added.
PLAs have a controversial history in California. Critics say unions have used the state's tough environmental laws as leverage to strong-arm developers into signing the agreements.
In several cases over the past decade, builders of major electricity plants in California agreed to PLAs after labor groups threatened to raise environmental protests. Three years ago, in what was widely seen as an attempt to secure a PLA, a lawyer with ties to organized labor filed an environmental lawsuit challenging the Sacramento railyard redevelopment. The suit failed.
Christen has fought unions over PLAs elsewhere. Last fall he led a successful ballot initiative banning the agreements in San Diego County.
The group is focusing on Sacramento because "we do like the high profile of the state capital as a place to do this," said Kevin Dayton, government affairs director at the Associated Builders and Contractors of California.
Dayton's group and the Western Electrical Contractors are the main contributors to the effort so far. The group has raised between $100,000 and $200,000 toward a goal of $1.5 million, Christen said.
Petitions haven't yet been circulated because the business group must first wait for the ballot language to be approved by the city and county attorneys, Dayton said.