Labor advocates filled the Tracy Council Chambers on Tuesday, urging the Tracy City Council to set new standards for how contractors working for the city should treat their workers.

During a 1½-hour hearing, the council heard from 20 speakers, most of them representing organized labor, but others representing local businesses that employ nonunion workers.

After the discussion, the City Council directed the city staff, on a unanimous vote, to draft examples of project labor agreements that would define the wages and benefits city contractors should offer and would also emphasize hiring of local workers.

In his report to the council, assistant city manager Andrew Malik noted that the agreements could also govern issues such as whether workers could stage a picket should a dispute arise between a labor union and a city contractor employing union members. The agreements could apply to city projects in general or to specific projects.

Representatives of organized labor urged the council to pursue these agreements as a way to ensure that city contracts, such as large public works or building project funded by city government, pay middle-class wages and provide jobs for local workers.

Raul Hernandez, vice president of the San Joaquin Building Trades Council, representing 23 unions and about 10,000 families in San Joaquin County, told the council that a recent county project that didn’t have this type of workforce agreement ended up giving nearly 80% of its jobs to workers from outside San Joaquin County.

He then noted that recent city of Stockton projects under project labor agreements drew 87% of their workers from San Joaquin County, including 46% from Stockton.

“Which meant that every time they got paid and got their checks, they spent their money in Stockton and they spent it in San Joaquin County, and this is what we want to bring to the city of Tracy,” he said. “Keep your local dollars here.”

Esau Hernandez, representing several labor groups, including the San Joaquin-Calaveras Central Labor Council, also urged the city to support project labor agreements.

“We need to give the opportunity to our residents, to our constituents, to our local people, the opportunity to live and work in their city. With the PLA, we can do that,” he said. “We can have local hires. We can have good-paying jobs that are paying health care, retirement benefits, good head of household wages.”

Those who opposed project labor agreements warned the council that the agreements would restrict the city’s flexibility in seeking out the best deals for city contracts, even though awarding a contract to the lowest responsible bidder is the city’s goal.

One business owner who has worked on local commercial projects told the council that the city can hire contractors that offer good wages and benefits even in the absence of labor agreements. He said that union shops already have opportunities available to “merit shops” — those businesses that hire, pay and promote workers based on worker performance, rather than collective bargaining agreements.

“They’re eligible to bid on a project just the same way as a merit shop. If it’s a prevailing wage project, we have to pay prevailing wages that are dictated by skill,” he said.

“A PLA project, what it does do is eliminates merit shops such as myself from bidding,” he added, saying that labor agreements also create excessive paperwork to ensure that companies comply with the details of the agreement. “When you get merit shops that don’t bid projects like that, you get less bids to choose from, and the less bids you get to choose from, the higher the profit margins are going to go up. Not fair wages, but profit margins.”

In response to opposition to project labor agreements, interim city attorney Leticia Ramirez said that setting minimum requirements does not necessarily exclude nonunion shops from bidding on city projects.

“The agreements must allow all qualified contractors and subcontractors to bid on the work, regardless of whether or not they have collective bargaining agreements, so the agreement cannot prohibit nonunionized contractors from bidding,” Ramirez said.

The council was supportive of establishing new project labor agreements, with Councilman Dan Arriola citing the celebration of Labor Day this week and achievements of the labor movement, such as a 40-hour work week and retirement and health benefits.

“So for me this really is a no-brainer. I think that this particular issue really is a workplace justice issue. It’s an equity issue,” Arriola said. “We can talk about traffic over the Altamont. We can talk about economic development, and our staff does an incredible job of bringing jobs here, but we’re talking about policy decisions that can actually effectuate that change, and there are very few policy decisions by council that can make those things reality.”

Councilwoman Rhodesia Ransom agreed that as much as the City Council talks about bringing head of household jobs to Tracy, it is appropriate to create policies that reflect the city’s commitment to those types of jobs.

“I’ve done my homework. I’ve gotten a lot of information in regards to why we should not do this, but definitely why we should do this,” Ransom said. “We don’t want to be just a bedroom community, and it’s really important that we have an opportunity to give people the chance to live where they work.”

The motion to direct the city staff to draft new labor agreements passed unanimously, though Councilwoman Nancy Young urged that other stakeholders, not just union representatives, should advise the city on the structure of the agreements.

Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com or 830-4227.

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