Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Has labor leader overreached?

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Robbie Hunter had to fill big shoes when he became president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, and that is what he set out to do.

In his first year as leader of the 400,000-member labor organization, Hunter pushed legislation to expand prevailing wage law, the Depression-era concept that guarantees construction workers their pay.

The question: Has Hunter overreached?

Hunter, 56, is wiry and steely-eyed and has the remnants of a brogue, having emigrated from Ireland as a teenager. He made his way to California in 1980 and became an ironworker.

In his office, Hunter has a photo of himself wearing a hard hat and balancing on a steel beam high above Los Angeles, circa 1992. He was working on what would become Library Tower, the tallest building in California.

He became president of Ironworkers Local 433 in Los Angeles in 2002, a boom time. The union struggled through the crash of 2008, when unemployment ran at 60 percent. He became council president a year ago, succeeding Bob Balgenorth. Balgenorth defended prevailing wage in the 1990s when Gov. Pete Wilson tried to role it back, and presided over its expansion in 1999 when Gray Davis became governor. Hunter seeks more, far more.

Just as public employee unions fight for their pension benefits, the building trades council protects the prevailing wage. Adopted in California in 1931, the prevailing wage law is intended to prevent contractors from importing low-wage workers from outside the state.

Under the law, construction workers are guaranteed union wages on any public works projects paid for with state tax money. The prevailing wage requirement likely raises construction costs. But importantly, it helps ensure that California tax money is used to pay decent wages to California workers.

Hunter argues that the prevailing wage saves taxpayers’ money because union workers are better trained and more highly skilled.

“We can do it with the least amount of workers in the least amount of time,” Hunter said. “Do it once. Do it right. It will last for decades.”

Dueling studies argue both sides. Whichever is right, Hunter has crossed serious forces this year, including the oil industry, the California Chamber of Commerce, the League of California Cities and the organization that represents hospitals, not to mention a competing union.

He also has placed Gov. Jerry Brown in a tough position. The governor, who fancies himself the adult in the room, must decide by this weekend whether to sign bills that would significantly alter labor law, or veto them and risk angering patrons who are fundamental to his base.

The building trades council has donated $1.4 million to Brown’s campaigns since 2007, including $1.3 million to an independent campaign to help elect him in 2010. The 14 unions that make up the council – electrical workers, pipefitters, ironworkers and Teamsters among them – also are major donors to the governor.

In this legislative session, the council took an expansionist view of prevailing wages.

In Senate Bill 615 by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Modesto, private hospitals that obtain construction loans from the state would have to pay prevailing wages. Added labor costs would be significant as hospitals seek ways to finance as much as $110 billion in seismic upgrades.

In Senate Bill 7 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, charter cities would be pressured into paying prevailing wages even when they use their own city tax money, and no state money, to pay for construction projects.

Senate Bill 54 by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, would require that oil refineries pay prevailing wages to employees. If Brown were to sign the bill, prevailing wage for the first time would be applied to private companies that don’t get state funds, a recipe for litigation.

Hunter casts the refinery bill as a safety measure, in response to the massive fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond last year. In fact, the bill emerged in the final month of the session and was approved on a party-line vote.

In the conference room of the council’s sleek new I Street office, Hunter provided me with a stack of photos snapped in refinery parking lots of license plates, all of them out of state. He believes contractors bring in lower-paid workers, who take jobs at the expense of Californians, and aren’t as skilled as building trades workers.

“We live in the shadow of these things,” Hunter said. “The issue is safety.”

Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of Western State Petroleum Association, said the bill has nothing to do with safety. The issue is jobs and “more money.”

“Why is prevailing wage even in a safety bill? It’s not about safety. It is a jobs grab,” Reheis-Boyd said.

Hunter points out that the average pay among members of organization is $54,000, hardly a king’s ransom. A labor leader’s job is to raise wages. But as he seeks to leave his mark, Hunter risks a backlash from powerful forces.