Central Calif. Local Plays Key Role in Winning PLA Ordinance in Watsonville


October 25, 2013

Labor unions and allies in the city of Watsonville, a fertile agricultural center on the central coast of California, have had much success in 2012 convincing progressive candidates to run and win seats on their city council. Many council members had labor union backgrounds, says Castroville Local 234 Business Manager Andy Hartmann.


Even though their employers identified with organized labor, some of the council staffers in the city, located 90 miles south of San Francisco, didn’t understand the workings of project labor agreements covering public construction projects.

So, joining forces with the Monterey/Santa Cruz Building and Construction Trades Council and the Monterey Bay AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, Hartmann and other members of Local 234 spent almost a year meeting with council members and informing their staffs on the benefits of passing an ordinance governing public works progress.

In early October, those efforts—which included 20 members of Local 234 attending and many testifying at city council meetings—met success when the Watsonville City Council voted 5 to 1 to require project labor agreements on all public works projects costing more than $600,000 and employing three or more trades.

While the final language still needs to be negotiated, Hartmann says the benefit of the PLA will not only flow to 330 members of Local 234, many of whom are still getting back on their feet from economic recession, but to unemployed residents of Watsonville.

“A lot of good union jobs around Watsonville in cold storage and food processing have been lost to other states,” says Hartmann. “A PLA is a community benefit from which we will try to create pre-apprenticeship programs for residents out of work to train for decent construction jobs.”

A story in the Santa Cruz Sentinel reports that Hartmann asked several Local 234 apprentices to stand up during a council meeting and said, “This is the future workforce here. That’s what we need to encourage.” The paper reported that union supporters vastly outnumbered opponents at the meeting.

As council staffers became more familiar with the PLA concept, they compared the experience of other cities and towns that had negotiated similar agreements. Berkeley, for instance, required PLAs on all jobs costing $1 million or more. The building trades were pushing for a $250,000 threshold, says Hartmann. The council split the difference.

Critical to winning support for PLAs was demonstrating that union building trades already perform 75 percent of the public construction in Watsonville. An ordinance with a $600,000 minimum would cover about 40 percent of all projects, says Hartmann.

Opposition to PLAs was voiced by the nonunion Associated Builders and Contractors. But Ron Chesshire, chief executive officer of the building trades council, reaffirmed that a project labor agreement does not prevent nonunion contractors from bidding on projects. 

“Our members are very pleased that we were able to win the ordinance,” says Hartmann. Council members are now “being bombarded by ABC” so we will continue to give them positive examples of the benefits to communities from PLAs as we prepare to negotiate final language.”