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Decision to Use Union Workers Draws Protest

O.C. supervisors defend their agreement with labor organizations on public-works projects.

February 08, 2000|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly 200 nonunion painters and electricians, many from outside Orange County, staged a rally Monday to protest a landmark agreement by county supervisors to use union labor on most future public-works projects.

"This will bring no open competition to Orange County, and it means prices for projects will go up and the taxpayers will pay," said John Corry, owner of a Montclair electrical company.

Protesters carried unfair-labor signs and chanted, "Who are we? Eighty percent"--a reference that four out of five Orange County trades workers are nonunion.

Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar), who attended the rally outside the Hall of Administration in Santa Ana, called the agreement "absolutely wrong."

"I'm not anti-union, but when you have a county with less than 20% union workers, [the agreement] is absolutely wrong," Miller said.

The agreement, which was approved Jan. 11 by the board's pro-airport majority, has been criticized as an attempt to win labor support for an El Toro airport.

Union trade workers would be assured of most of the work on the $2.8-billion airport, potentially the county's largest-ever public works project.

Contractors and trades workers met with four of the five supervisors. But none who voted for the labor agreement indicated they would bring the item up for reconsideration.

"It's an agreement that's going to help the workers in Orange County," said Supervisor Cynthia Coad.

Coad, Supervisor Jim Silva and Chairman Charles V. Smith voted for the agreement because it allows better budgeting for projects and will favor local workers. Benefits associated with the contracts, including health care coverage, will stay in Orange County, they argued.

Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson abstained, saying they had too little time to evaluate whether it was the best deal for taxpayers.

Smith, who declined to meet with protesters, said he did not see a reason to change his vote.

"I did meet with one representative of one of their organizations some time ago before our vote," Smith said. "He presented his case and I didn't see any reason to change my opinion."

Smith recalled that while on the Westminster City Council, he was not pleased with contractors working on a major shopping center hiring cheap, nonunion labor from New Mexico.

Eric Christen, executive director for Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, which organized the rally, said the protests are not over. The group plans to continue its criticism of the supervisors and if necessary, begin a recall drive or push for a ballot measure against the agreement.

"What they're doing is taking our jobs away," said Gary Paiz, 34, an electrician from La Habra. "The airport is a small issue compared to this. This is an agreement for every big public-works project, jails, buildings--and the airport."

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