Politics & Government

Dan Walters: California construction unions get two big wins

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Union membership among California’s private employers has been on a downward slide for decades – with two notable exceptions.

As health care, already California’s largest economic sector, continues to grow, unions of hospital and other medical workers continue to expand.

Union membership also remains strong in the “building trades,” particularly among companies that bid on public works projects, thanks to an 82-year-old state law called “prevailing wage.”

In essence, it requires contractors on such projects to pay union wages to carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other tradesmen. And it is the core of a perpetual political struggle in the Capitol as the State Building & Construction Trades Council defends it and attempts to expand its reach, doing battle with local governments, nonunion contractors and other foes.

With a new president, Robbie Hunter, at the helm, a Democratic governor and big Democratic majorities in the Legislature, the construction union organization made a high-octane push in the Capitol this year. And when Gov. Jerry Brown had finished passing judgment, it had scored two big wins and one relatively small loss.

Brown signed a bill (Senate Bill 7) that circumvents a state Supreme Court decision and punishes cities with independent governing charters that exempt themselves from prevailing wage laws by denying them state public works funds.

It was, interestingly, a significant departure from Brown’s oft-voiced support of “subsidiarity,” the principle that locally elected officials should have maximum discretion to make decisions for their constituents.

Brown also signed a bill (SB 54) that will extend prevailing wage requirements to private refinery construction, and also give union tradesmen first dibs on refinery jobs, elbowing aside members of the refinery workers union. And it represents a new front in the prevailing wage issue – whether it should be extended to private, as well as public, projects.

That question also arose in the one union-backed prevailing wage bill Brown did veto, Assembly Bill 615.

AB 615 would have expanded prevailing wage laws to construction at private “health care facilities” financed with state loans.

Brown said the definition of the latter was too imprecise, but his veto message for the Legislature implied that he might sign a more tightly drafted measure.

All in all, it was a big win for Hunter, thus justifying the millions of dollars that his umbrella organization and its individual unions had pumped into Brown’s personal and ballot measure campaigns in recent years.

The construction unions are also big backers of the multibillion-dollar water and bullet train projects that Brown is touting, knowing that they not only would be built with union labor but likely would have “project labor agreements,” which are another long-sought union goal.