Who gets to hire workers for city construction projects?
In San Diego, voters will now have a say.
A petition drive sponsored by non-union contractors has gathered enough signatures to qualify it for next year's primary election ballot.
The measure, following in the political footsteps of others throughout California and the country, would ban so-called "project labor agreements," known as PLAs, that favor contractors who do their hiring through union halls.
It's not often that the city of San Diego goes the PLA route to build facilities.
Next June, however, voters could mandate that it never does again.
But such a move could come at a high price exacted by the Legislature.
Within a couple blocks of each other in downtown San Diego's East Village are two major projects fitting each profile.
A $185 million central library venture, due for completion in 2013, is not covered by a PLA.
By contrast, PETCO Park, home of the San Diego Padres since it opened in 2004, was completed under a project labor agreement. That happened at a time when collective bargaining rates actually were lower than some of the prevailing wage rates that both union and non-union contractors otherwise have to pay.
Passage of a PLA ban would raise questions about the hiring of 4,000 workers needed for the proposed expansion of the Convention Center.
"If you don't hire from a labor pool, then you've got to hire everybody individually,” said Jai Ghorpade, emeritus professor of management and labor issues at San Diego State University.
"Where are they going to go -- to Home Depot?" Ghorpade said. "Are they going to go to a private employment agency?"
Project managers who have handled both approaches point out that even on most major construction endeavors that aren't under PLAs, the majority of the workforce tends to be union labor.
"Unions, in general, have done a much better job of apprenticeship training," said Charles Black, manager of San Diego's proposed $550 million Convention Center expansion project.
"Some of the non-union contractors have, but most have not," Black said. "And so when you have 'contract qualifications' that are imposed on a contract, many non-union contractors can't qualify."
Also, Black points out, big national and regional contractors that land major public works projects tend to be unionized.
Unions seem to hold a certain sway over decisions by the California Coastal Commission -- whose approval would be needed to green-light the Convention Center expansion.
So the anti-PLA measure shapes up as high-stakes politics, indeed.
"It's not a rational issue," Ghorpade said. "It's an ideological issue."
Black sees it in terms more political than economic.
"I think the worst thing that could happen in this ongoing dialogue is for either side to pursue a 'scorched-earth' policy," he said. "That is to say, either side would rather kill a project if they don't get everything they want out of that project."
That's happened often enough in California and elsewhere that anti-PLA measures are popping up and passing in a lot of places.
But there's legislation on Gov. Brown's desk, Senate Bill 922, that would withhold state funding for public works projects by agencies that ban PLAs -- including redevelopment and Mello-Roos special tax proceeds.