Local government is part of one big dysfunctional family.

The state is the oldest brother, forever bossed around by its parents, the federal government.

Cities are the young brothers at the mercy of the state, an irrational older sibling incapable of handling its own business without shaking down its younger siblings for each nickel and dime in the piggy bank.

Yet most cities, already at the brunt of imprudent guidance and pushed to their financial limits, are being shoved around by another part of this dysfunctional family, a gang of powerful step-cousins: the unions.

Influential unions are bullying cities into making decisions that are not in the best interest of the city.

Recently, the city of Palmdale faced an attack against its taxpayers when labor unions essentially blackmailed the city.

While the fight surrounds prevailing wage requirements, the reality is that it’s a fight over local control. The question is simple, should a local government have the ability to chart a course for its future or will unions keep them from doing so.

Palmdale is considering becoming a charter city, and as recently ruled by the Fourth District Court of Appeal, California’s charter cities are able to steer clear of prevailing wage requirements. California’s prevailing wage law is flawed and says that the state should determine how much local governments pay.  However, the state doesn’t determine prevailing wages through surveys of local contractors or workers, nor does it determine the average wage or even the median wage for workers.  It simply follows the union lead.  Is the cost of living in Bakersfield the same as it is in San Francisco?  In some instances, the “prevailing wage” is.

It’s even worse when one considers that the state’s prevailing wage rules force employers and workers to contribute to “special funds” beyond simple wages and benefits.  For carpenters in Northern California, the state determines their prevailing wage rate by including assessments to seven separate funds that have nothing to do with worker compensation: California Construction Advancement Program; California Builders Advancement Program; Builders Industry Promotion Trust Fund; Construction Industry Advancement Fund; Building Industry Marketing Program; Carpenter Employers Contract Administration Trust Fund; Carpenters Work Preservation Committee Trust.

So, the state takes taxpayer money away from employees and steers it to funds designed specifically to support unions.  Whether or not one supports labor, this is certainly not prudent use of public money.

It’s no wonder that cities are trying to either exercise their charter rights or become a charter city.  But the unions don’t seem to care much about local control.  Unions argue that prevailing wage laws remove wages from the equation, and ensure higher quality construction.

But research done by the city of Palo Alto – when it was faced with keeping its long-term exemption not requiring prevailing wage – concluded that prevailing wage did not have an impact on project quality and the exemption provided a 10 percent savings on public works.

Cities such as Palmdale are looking to efficiently deliver public works projects while unions are looking to protect the state’s antiquated and harmful wage law. According to city staff documents, the Los Angeles and Orange County Building Trades union has expressed significant opposition to a Charter Palmdale if it exempts prevailing wage requirements for all public works projects.

Is it at the best interest of the city? Nope.

But when 200 union workers attended a Palmdale City Council meeting, power politics became priority over the good of the taxpayers.

It’s important to note that this fight has nothing to do with paying employees quality wages.  Nobody opposes that and, in fact, charter cities can establish their own local prevailing wage requirements.  Based on the labor pool and required services, these rates could be higher than the state’s requirement.  

Charter cities should take full advantage of managing local affairs as they see fit; local elected officials are elected by and accountable to residents for managing local dollars.  These officials shouldn’t cede to the state or any labor unions.  Unfortunately, Palmdale is bowing down to union bullies, who are concerned with their own paychecks, not the interest of the city.

It’s time for cities such as Palmdale to stop being pushed around, especially by those pesky step-cousins.  The issue has nothing to do with protecting workers.  It’s all about preventing local control.

James Spencer can be reached at jspencer@publicceo.com