(CN) - A $586 million new courthouse in San Diego will rely on a labor pact that cuts competition and raises costs for the benefit of unions, a watchdog said.
Although there has been no official public announcement about the agreement, the San Diego Union-Tribune obtained emails indicating that California will utilize its first project labor agreement (PLA) for a courthouse project.
"I should emphasize that we are considering this PLA to be a pilot effort that the Court Facilities Working Group and AOC [Administrative Office of the Courts] will continuously evaluate for costs and benefits going forward," state courts director Steven Jahr wrote in an email
directed to AOC Judicial Council members.
A PLA will typically set costs in advance for the labor to be done on a project, and will include standards for wages and health care benefits for all the employees working on the project. All the workers are subjected to unionization and typically must pay union fees if they are not part of a union.
Jahr said in his email that the PLA for the new 71-courtroom facility in San Diego is being put in place to help prevent potential expensive delays.
"At $586 million for the total project (of which $544 million is construction), any delay can be costly," Jahr wrote in the email.
San Diego County banned PLAs with a ballot measure in 2010, but the new court is a state project and is not subject to the ban.
"We realize there are some who criticize PLAs," Jarh wrote in his email. "We have examined those criticisms and believe for this project there is an overall benefit. We have been advised that a number of collective bargaining agreements for involved trades will come up for renewal within the construction window for this job. The terms of the PLA ensure that the construction process will be uninterrupted by those renewal anniversaries. The agreement precludes strikes and would prevent delays caused by shortages of workers in the relevant trades. It will also streamline management of the project."
Jahr also said in the email that the PLA will be cost-effective and will apply to all of the bid packages except those smaller than $125,000.
"Additionally, the PLA provides that the project has a built-in local participation goal of 30 percent for San Diego trades," Jahr wrote.
The AOC and the assigned contractor, Rudolph and Sletten, are taking steps to encourage local, small, emerging, and minority businesses to bid on portions of the project, which is scheduled for a construction start date by the end of December, Jahr said in the email.
A representative for the AOC also wrote about the project labor agreement in two other letters to the State Building and Construction Trades Council
and Rudolph and Sletten
Meanwhile, the California Public Policy Center's research project Union Watch insisted that "this labor pact will cut competition and raise costs for the benefit of unions."
It called the agreement the result of a "behind-the-scenes plot within the California court system."
"Although the Judicial Council claims to have 'a comprehensive process for soliciting, gathering, and considering public comment on proposals during the policy development process,' the hasty internal process of deciding to negotiate, negotiating, and executing a Project Labor Agreement was not included on the last meeting agenda of the Judicial Council on April 25-26, 2013," the group said.