Gregg Hart

Gregg Hart

Santa Barbara City Councilman Gregg Hart’s proposal to require the city to give preference in awarding contracts to companies that hire union workers stalled at Tuesday’s ordinance committee meeting.

Committee members Randy Rowse and Kristen Sneddon voted not to move forward with Hart’s proposal to create a Project Labor Agreement on large capital projects, but to instead look at alternative ways to increase local employee hiring. 

Committee member Oscar Gutierrez, however, said the city should only do business with companies that have gone through union training. 

“When it comes to being certified in a field, whether it is a chef in a restaurant, a professor at a college or an award-winning filmmaker for a major studio, there’s certification that goes into that, there’s training, there’s a process and that is something that is really important when it comes to the type of work in buildings and maintenance that we are going to be applying to the future of this community,” Gutierrez said.

“To be able to hire people who live and grew up in this area and offer them the opportunity to go through that certification, I feel, is a major plus. and something that is honestly needed.”

The committee voted 2-1 not to move forward, but the matter must still go before the full Santa Barbara City Council. 

The city is considering a project labor agreement on projects valued at more than $25 million, which includes the upcoming building of a new police station and electrical upgrades at the El Estero Treatment Plant.

The idea is that anyone who does business with the city must first look to hire local employees from the union hall. 

Typically, PLAs limit the number of employees that non-union contractors can bring to a project without utilizing the union hiring hall system. 

Since 2014, the city has issued 123 low-bid design-bid-build projects, and in those cases the prime contractor lived an average of 63 miles away.

About one-third of those contracts included unions as the prime contractors, said Rebecca Bjork, the city’s public works director. 

Randy Rowse

Randy Rowse

“We have a lot of contractors from Ventura, Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo,” Bjork said. 

She said that it would take about six months to negotiate a project labor agreement for each job, and it could cost between $300,000 and $400,000. 

“We would need the assistance of expert legal and expert technical help,” Bjork said. 

Lee Cushman, representing Cushman Contracting Company, said his company is not unionized, but that it has performed more than $50 million in work for the city. 

“I am against the PLA,” Cushman said. “Our workers are all non-union. They are all very loyal. We treat them very well.”

He said non-union employees are trained just as well as union employees.

Rowse agreed, saying he was discouraged that Hart brought the matter forward. 

“Why here, why now?” asked Rowse. “I don’t think there is a discrimination against union employees, but I do see a PLA that is discriminating against non-union employees.”

Rowse also said the proposal didn’t make financial sense. 

“We have our engineers right here that do this stuff,” Rowse said. “We have our legal over here that do this stuff already, and to add another player just does not make sense.”

Gutierrez tried to defend unions. 

“I feel like unions have gotten, like, it’s being treated like it’s a four-letter word, but when I think about what an association is or an organization, it seems like it is just a union by another name,” Gutierrez said. 

Sneddon said that a project labor agreement isn’t needed. 

“In my mind, we have many different avenues currently for quality work and local control of our city and how to handle taxpayer dollars,” Sneddon said. “I very much trust that our staff provides an excellent process for handling bids.”

The city currently awards about 44 percent of its construction jobs to union firms. 

“I don’t feel it is for me to say which type of worker we should be giving preferential treatment to,” Sneddon said. 

“The current bidding process works,” she said. “It is a very hard time right now to keep a local business going.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at