A battle is brewing between big business and labor in Sonoma County over the prospect of the Board of Supervisors possibly adopting a project labor agreement for public construction projects of over $25 million.

[caption id="attachment_61409" align="alignright" width="302"] The Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport expansion project is one that could be affected by these agreements. (photo credit: John Burgess, The Press Democrat, 2011)[/caption]

The board is set to hear arguments for and against the proposal of a project labor agreement on Tuesday, with impassioned arguments expected on each side of the issue.

The North Coast Builders Exchange, a trade group representing builders and contractors, has already come out as vehemently opposed to the proposal, saying such agreements drive up construction costs and discriminate against non-union contractors. 

"We've had a policy where we are adamantly opposed to project labor agreements on public works projects," said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the Builders Exchange. "We have no doubt that these things are discriminatory, unfair and create an uneven playing field in the bidding process."

But Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, which is affiliated with AFL-CIO, disputes that notion, saying instead that such agreements help provide transparency, provides local workers with jobs and ensures that workers aren't exploited.

"There's quite a few benefits," she said. "One of the main benefits is local hires, ensuring local dollars go to local workers. Second is the issue of transparency. One of the problems we see in construction are folks bidding on the project and not paying their workforce enough in wages."[poll id="36"]

A project labor agreement is a pre-hire agreement that essentially governs work rules, pay rates and dispute resolution processes. Terms and conditions are typically set by the agreement and apply to every contractor and subcontractor involved on a given project.

The goal of such agreements, according to proponents, is to provide a pool of highly trained and skilled workers on each segment of construction, thus ensuring on-budget, on-time completion.

But opponents argue that project labor agreements drive up costs because the requirements often discourage nonunion contractors and subcontractors from the bidding process, leading to higher bids overall because of the lack of competition. Opponents also contend that the work rules increase labor costs, which are then passed onto the developer of the project.

Mr. Woods said the Builders Exchange opposes such agreements, arguing that it's one thing if  a private developer wants to sign an agreement and work with a union, but that it's entirely different to require it of public agencies and projects.

"Our organization is adamantly opposed to the use of PLAs for publicly funded projects," he said.

Ms. Maldonado countered that similar agreements have been upheld throughout the country, noting that President Barack Obama signed an executive order encouraging federal agencies to consider project labor agreements on federal projects costing more than $25 million.

"They're not discriminatory," she said, emphasizing that large-scale projects -- not every project -- would be affected."It's better to have a project that is transparent."

The issue is sure to draw ideological lines in the sand: In 2001, former President George W. Bush signed an executive order prohibiting the use of project labor agreements for construction projects that used federal funding; in 2009, however, President Barack Obama signed an executive order encouraging federal agencies to consider the agreements on federal projects costing more than $25 million. Ms. Maldonado said the current proposal in Sonoma County is modeled on the latter executive order.

Large projects such as the Sonoma County Airport project, which will eventually total over $100 million, much of it coming from federal funds, is an example of the type of project that could be included.