A landmark agreement by supervisors Tuesday to use union labor on most future Orange County public works projects was immediately labeled by foes as a brazen move to buy continued union support for a new airport at El Toro.
Backers of the pact insist that the arrangement, covering projects through 2005, is unrelated to the airport. Union trades workers, however, would be assured of most of the work on the $2.8-billion airport, potentially the largest public works project ever in Orange County. If approved by the federal government, the airport would open in 2005 at the closed Marine base.
Despite denials of a connection with El Toro, the supervisors' approval mirrored the panel's alignment over the airport. Three pro-airport members said yes, while the two anti-airport supervisors abstained.
Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson complained that they had too little time to evaluate whether it was the best deal for taxpayers.
"This discussion is not about what's union versus nonunion; it's about what's best and most cost-effective for the taxpayers," Spitzer said. "Because competition is key to our economy."
Making the vote even more unusual is the fact that county government traditionally hasn't favored organized labor and instead opened up projects to union and nonunion workers.
The agreement requires that union workers make up at least 85% of the work force on most future projects--determined by the type of project and the amount of the contract. The workers would be guaranteed the prevailing wage in exchange for promising not to strike.
South County leaders opposed to the airport charged that the vote's timing was no coincidence. They insisted that county officials promised lucrative contracts to the unions in exchange for labor's pledge to oppose an anti-airport measure on the March ballot. Measure F would require approval by two-thirds of voters countywide before airports, large jails near homes and hazardous-waste landfills could be built.
Mike Potts, head of the Allied Orange County Building Trades Council, called the conspiracy theory groundless. He said unions never would have supported Measure F.
But Potts acknowledged that labor leaders met with South County officials last year about possible support for the non-airport Millennium Plan, an alternative for El Toro being pushed by South County cities. Labor unions supported the airport in 1994 and 1996 initiatives but were willing to listen to South County's pitch, Potts said.
The meetings continued until March, when South County leaders unveiled what became Measure F, Potts said. Labor leaders, including the Orange County Central Labor Council, immediately opposed the measure because it would restrict the county's ability to make needed public works improvements.
"Once Measure F was drafted, there wasn't any way we had anything else to talk about," said Potts, of Rancho Santa Margarita. "South County looked at us and wrote us off with Measure F."
Pact Has 'Nothing to Do With Politics'
Discussions with county officials over the new labor agreement began in earnest about six months ago, Potts said. The idea had been floated as far back as 1984 but interest was renewed about 18 months ago, after county officials toured San Jose International Airport, which was built under a similar agreement.
Board Chairman Charles V. Smith argued that the arrangement would control project costs, guarantee a supply of skilled local workers and impose hefty fines for work stoppages or strikes. Smith, former mayor of Westminster, recalled a large shopping center project built there with lower-paid workers from New Mexico while many Orange County workers were jobless.
"This is very fair and gives everyone a chance to bid on jobs" as long as they comply with the agreement, Smith said. "This will assure that projects come in on time and on budget. It has nothing to do with politics."
Supervisor Cynthia Coad said many employers prefer the agreements because it allows better budgeting for projects; Supervisor Jim Silva said that it will favor local workers and that benefits associated with the contracts, including health care coverage, will stay in Orange County.
Union leaders on hand for the vote hailed the board's decision. A dozen speakers, however, assailed the proposal, which has been used by other county and city governments in California and nationwide. The speakers, including several contractors with nonunion employees, said the pact penalizes an estimated 80% of Orange County trades workers who aren't union members.
"This creates discrimination and an attack-type situation for any employee who chooses not to join a union," said Frank Ury, a conservative activist from Mission Viejo.