Ruffalo: Innocuous agenda item may pack a wallop

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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At last Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting, I’m pretty sure I saw a glimpse of the future. I did not particularly care for what I saw. The agenda item — number 5, for those of you keeping score at home — appeared innocuous enough in print. The item said: “Adopt a Resolution amending the Placer County Purchasing Policy Manual to add a provision prohibiting any requirements for project labor agreements on county public projects.” Allow me to translate. What the item hoped to achieve was to keep the county from ever signing a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) in the foreseeable future. It should be pointed out that the county has never had a PLA, but that omission didn’t stop the process. Depending upon which side of the “unions” issue you occupy, a PLA is either a wonderful document which promises to keep “labor unrest” out of the equation and — not as an afterthought — allows construction workers and the like to be paid at the same rate as their brethren (and cistern?) in the Bay Area, or is so devilish that it delivers any public building project solely into the hands of nefarious union goons. As the son of a former Steelworkers Union organizer, I once believed in the first definition, but lately I’m starting to worry where the combined unions are taking this country. First District Supervisor Rocky Rockholm, who placed this item on the agenda, went so far as to call PLAs “greenmail,” which for the uninitiated means he feels such documents are used as a form of economic blackmail. He alluded to what he hinted was economic mischief caused by unions during Roseville’s electrical power project, and insisted he did not want the county government to suffer similarly. Once the item was on the floor, so, too, were a legion of representatives from various local crafts unions. Most were seriously concerned about the issue, claiming that PLAs not only weren’t economic weapons, but instead ensured a safe and beneficial livelihood for such workers. On the other hand, some were downright vitriolic, adding pejorative titles to the few who spoke in favor of the item. A few even made veiled threats of ruinous labor stoppages, along with political downfall to those who dared to opposed a PLA. After a lengthy and eye-opening debate, supervisors voted 3-2 to keep PLAs out of county governmental projects. So now, you gentle readers are asking, “What’s the problem?” Candidly, it was the vote. Rockholm was joined by Robert Weygandt and Kirk Uhler to carry the issue, but as more than one laborite pointed out, the board will soon change its political makeup, thanks to a recent election. And judging from the comments from opposing Jennifer Montgomery and Jim Holmes, that issue will no doubt resurface come January. Montgomery cited a litany of reasons why she opposed the item, all of which can be found in past — and no doubt future — campaign statements issued in support of labor unions. Holmes’ reasoning was a bit more convoluted. Perhaps the one I disagreed with most was the apprentice clause nearly every PLA possesses. It calls for for taxpayers’ money to be used to employ apprentices for the varied unions on the project. Many of those apprentices are public school students, and much of the money not winding up in the pockets of those youngsters finds its way into the public education system. Am I against apprentice programs? Absolutely not. It’s just that I feel perhaps the unions themselves need to fund such a worthy endeavor. After all, those same labor organizations always seem to have enough gold to fund somebody in nearly every election. But Holmes insisted that apprentice funding sources were a big reason to vote against the item. He somehow forgot that such benefits — including a no-strike agreement — can be written into a normal county public works agreement. Perhaps he truly believes it, which makes sense to me. Or perhaps his day-job employer — the Placer County Office of Education — may have liked such a vote. Judging by the current level of the state and national economies, labor unions played a very large part in having us skid down the fiscal freeway. Even Holmes has continually cited pensions as “time bombs” ticking their way to explosions of red ink. So last Tuesday, the vote should have been 5-0. It wasn’t, and that’s what scares me. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs on Sundays. Reach him at