Facing the pressure of blackmail, a California Agency is seeking to railroad through a suspicious Project Labor Agreement that will waste dollars and embarrass a number of local government agencies.

The vote is set to take place next week over a Project Labor Agreement for a power plant project in Lodi.

The Northern California Power Agency (NCPA) seeks to adopt an agreement that would bar fair and open competition for labor bids on the project, based on the threats of labor unions.

It appears a vote will be pushed through in favor of the agreement, with a number of bizarre twists along the way.

The decision on whether or not to adopt the agreement was already voted on last week, resulting in a 3-3 tie with five abstentions and nine absences. Following the meeting, it was announced that there was no quorum, and the issue will be  voted on again on Nov. 2.

The NCPA is jockeying for a change of voting based upon politicking those who weren’t there that it believes would vote in favor of the special interest agreement.

NCPA staff even e-mailed its voting members a list of “Not for Distribution Talking Points” with a blatant pro-labor agreement stance in preparation for the vote.  There was no attempt to offer arguments for and against the policy, just rhetorical arguments advocating for a policy that wastes public money.

A Commissioner’s Take

Doug Crane, who is in his fifth year as the City of Ukiah’s NCPA Commissioner, voted against the agreement last week but expects the NCPA will get the outcome it’s seeking.

So why would any organization choose to shorten its list of potential bidders when the goal should be to find the highest quality of work at the lowest bid?

Well, it’s more about what the unions want.

“Its not about what’s right or what’s fair,” Crane said. “It’s about who has the most power and who can extort the most. It’s a simple shakedown in my opinion.”

Shakedown is certainly one way of putting it.

Unions have essentially blackmailed the NCPA with threats of delaying the project by blocking the California Energy Commission’s permit for power plant construction if a Labor Agreement was not adopted.  It is a practice commonly referred to as “Greenmail.”

The unions use the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and seek to delay the project on environmental grounds.  Once the target agency agrees to the Project Labor Agreement, the environmental objections are withdrawn, thus the term “Greenmail.”

In addition to the barring of qualified bidders, this Project Labor Agreement includes a $150,000 payment to the union’s slush fund.

Sound fishy yet?

“They’d rather pay extortion than stand up and do the right thing,” Crane said. “The right thing is to say, ‘Are we going to get blackmailed or are we going to stand up?’”

While unions try to allege otherwise, this isn’t a union vs. non-union issue. If union labor can put together a better project at a lower bid, it will win the project. It should be that simple.

Prohibiting Project Labor Agreements

In a phone conversation with NCPA Assistant General Manager Jane Cirrincione, she told PublicCEO that the two significant benefits of the Project Labor Agreement were 1) a no-strike clause and 2) that labor jobs would be awarded to those workers in a 50-mile radius.

What remains unclear, however, is why those couldn’t be included in any standard Request For Proposal?

It’s absolutely possible.

So possible, in fact, that the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve a resolution that will prohibit the requirement of labor agreements on county projects.  Fresno also prohibits them.

Author of the O.C. ordinance, Professor of Law Mario Mainero, is the senior policy adviser for County Supervisor John Moorlach. He said the major point of not allowing Project Labor Agreements was simple: to level the playing field.

“I think that’s just better policy,” Mainero said in a phone interview. “Just like everyone else in the market, be competitive and come up with the best price and you’re going to get the job.”

If Orange County and Fresno can build multi-million dollar projects without a need for Project Labor Agreements, why can’t the NCPA?

The truth is that it can.

And given the fact that local governments throughout California are laying off employees, including those who are members of NCPA, it’s unconscionable to think that any overspending is an appropriate way to spend taxpayer money.

And the issue isn’t even about wages.  The State Prevailing Wage must be paid on this project, with or without a Project Labor Agreement, according to NCPA’s “Talking Points.”

Still A Chance To Say No

Instead, decision-makers at the NCPA are knuckling to pressure that in any other context would be considered extortion.

“Looking at it from the standpoint of small community, I’m not thrilled,” Crane said, “We get saddled with additional costs based upon this essentially legalized racketeering.”

With a total project price tag of $432 million, and an estimated $60 million dedicated to labor, it would seem there might be a closer eye on spending ratepayer money most efficiently.  The increased costs of this project due to the Project Labor Agreement will result in higher than necessary utility rates for customers.  So as taxpayers, they’re being forced to pay more to fund the project and their rates will be higher as well. 

It’s this lack of public accountability that has given government a black eye. And with local agencies already mired in red ink, how can an organization explain not opening up the bidding process to potential lower bids? 

The fact is that all the alleged benefits within the Project Labor Agreement can be accomplished through a fair and open process that results in a binding contract.  Businesses, union and non-union, do it everyday.

But that doesn’t appear to matter to the staff at the NCPA.  Maybe it’s because they’re not accountable to voters and they’ve worked hard to keep this out of the public eye.

It will be offensive to hard-working taxpayers and an embarrassment to commissioners if this second chance vote is in favor of this agreement.

James Spencer can be e-mailed at jspencer@publicceo.com