Members of Martinez, Calif., Local 302 are getting ready to tackle one of the biggest mixed-use development projects in the local’s history. The upcoming transformation of the massive Naval Weapons Station Concord is expected to translate into career-spanning work for scores of current and future IBEW electricians across northern California.
"I’ll be long gone, and our members will still be working on it,” Local 302 Business Manager Tom Hansen said of the 30-year project that is expected to run into the tens of billions of dollars. The area building trades signed a project labor agreement with the developer prior to the contract being awarded in October.
A longtime local landmark, NWSC was set up by the U.S. Navy in 1942, shortly after the United States entered World War II, as an annex to the Mare Island shipyard. The station initially consisted of a 7,600-acre section on the shore of Suisun Bay. The Navy later bought nearly 5,200 acres of inland property and built on it rows of bunkers, a small airfield and railroad connections to the bay, as well as buildings to house base administrators and support personnel.
In 2005, under the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure process, responsibility for the station’s coastal portion was transferred to the U.S. Army. The inland part was gradually closed under BRAC, and the Concord City Council was designated to take charge of determining how to redevelop the site for civilian use.
“This project is enormous and will be in progress for many years to come once they begin construction,” said Ninth District International Vice President John O’Rourke. “I cannot recall any larger PLA or multi-use new construction site in northern California in my career.”
Besides its size, one thing that makes IBEW leaders so confident about the project’s anticipated longevity is the project labor agreement negotiated between the building trades and the selected developer, Concord First Partners, covering all of the work performed on the site.
“We now have a 30-year project of 2,350 acres and 13,000 homes with 6 million square feet of commercial space, and it’s all covered by a PLA,” Hansen said. “They’ve also set aside about 3,000 acres under East Bay Regional Parks system, with lots of open space.”
The key benefit of PLAs is that they help ensure that fair wages and benefits will be granted to everyone employed on construction projects governed by such agreements. Persistent contact between the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council — of which Local 302 is a member — and the city’s leaders also has helped reinforce that PLAs benefit the businesses where workers covered by the agreement live and purchase goods and services, Hansen said.
“Citywide, any work over $750,000 now has to be under a PLA,” he said. “Concord is big on PLAs.” With infrastructure upgrades alone estimated to cost at least $2 billion, the NWSC project more than qualifies for such an agreement, and in 2016, the council started talks with a company called Lennar for an exclusive negotiating agreement, with PLA negotiations beginning quickly.
“Lennar promised there would be a PLA, but then they started playing games during negotiations,” said Hansen. In response, Local 302 orchestrated a social media campaign called “A Better Deal for Concord” to publicly present the union’s case and to press Lennar to honor its promises.
Unfortunately, talks with Lennar failed to yield an agreement, leading the city council to start the bidding process from scratch last April. “This time around, there were three bidding developers that signed PLAs with the trades,” Hansen said.
In October, the council voted 3-2 to award a development contract to Concord First Partners, a decision that pleased the members of Local 302. “We’ve been working with CFP for 20-plus years,” Hansen said. “We’re working on the construction plan with them right now.” The plan should be ready for city council review and consideration in the coming months, he said.
There’s a great deal to consider: On the drawing boards are residential developments consisting of single-family homes and apartment and condominium high rises. Plans also call for at least one hotel, various recreational and educational facilities, a golf course and possibly even a campus for a four-year college.
But because of decades of its use as a military installation, the land is not 100% shovel-ready yet. “The Navy’s still cleaning up the site, and it’ll be another year or so before they’re totally done,” Hansen said.
Under the supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy is wrapping up the removal of tons of spent munitions and related debris, as well as residue from a variety of chemicals, including pesticides used decades ago. “They once kept ground squirrels away from their bunkers using arsenic,” Hansen said.
Some remediated sections of the old base, though, are ready for infrastructure work to start, he said, especially near the base’s western edge, close to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s North Concord/Martinez station.
Hansen cites Local 302’s many successes negotiating PLAs like this one for NWSC as a key reason why IBEW members, regardless of political party allegiance, need to be politically active.
“We’ve been helping friends of labor get elected for over 30 years, and kept working with the council members,” he said, with Local 302 and the other building trades unions continuing to educate the city council on the benefits of PLAs for the entire community.
Keeping workers happy on the pay-and-benefits front leads to increased productivity, he said. In turn, that helps to ensure projects get completed on-time and right the first time, metrics important to contractors and developers.
“This is the power of organizing the work,” Hansen said. “For the next 30 years, we won’t have to worry about our members finding jobs on this project.”
For now, Hansen said there are enough men and women in the 1,400-member local to handle all of the work on its plate plus what’s on the way at NWSC. Some of that current work falls under agreements with several of the area’s petroleum refineries, including the conversion of oil-producing plants owned by Phillips 66 and Marathon to renewable diesel production, each of which are 4-million-hour projects, Hansen said.
“Phillips will be the largest renewable diesel plant in the world when it’s done,” he added.
It means there can be no letup in Local 302’s recruiting and organizing, Hansen said, especially as the 30-year NWSC project moves forward.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. But Hansen also believes large numbers of open calls can be helpful for organizing and for increasing market share, especially as more workers get exposed to the generous benefits and better pay that union membership can guarantee.
“That’s what makes this a huge organizing opportunity, too,” he said.