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Contractors Angry Over Apprenticeship Programs Proposed By Mayor Ly; Two Ad Hoc Committees Formed

Contractors Angry Over Apprenticeship Programs Proposed By Mayor Ly; Two Ad Hoc Committees Formed

Mayor Ly’s Proposal Rejected
By Other City Council Members

When Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly brought up the subject of having local hires and youth apprenticeships included in contracts for public works projects in Elk Grove earlier this month, he touched off a lively discussion about project labor agreements at the Elk Grove City Council meeting Wednesday.

“I never said it was a project labor agreements,” said Ly afterwards. “I was talking about an apprentice program. The most important thing is to sit down with the trades and how to leverage the public’s money.”

The topic also led to the creation of two ad hoc committees to address different parts of his proposal. One committee will deal with youth and workforce development so that young people can be successful in working in the apprenticeships. The other committee will handle working on developing career pathways in building and construction trades on public works projects.

Mayor Ly and Council Member Stephanie Nguyen will serve on the first committee, and Vice Mayor Darren Suen and Council Member Patrick Hume will comprise the second taskforce.

Ly had opposed the creation of the two committees.

“It didn’t make any sense,” he said afterwards. “All I really wanted to do is to ask staff to sit down with the trades and come up with something in the agreement, so that these procedures are built out – a certain percentage of apprenticeships with local high school students, or local hires.”

He said city staff would have more time to delve into the issue than the members of the two ad-hoc committees.

“I have two guys who work for me in the mayor’s office – one works three hours a week, one works 12 hours a week,” he said. “They don’t have the expertise.”

But Suen, who heads up the second committee, and who is aso running against Ly for mayor, thought the creation of the two committees was necessary.

“I thought it was prudent,” he said. “There was a lack of clarity on the mayor’s proposal. No one could figure out what he was asking for. There are more conversations to be had. There was nothing ready to be ready for adoption.” He noted that the vague title for the agenda item on this week’s agenda suggested that the staff didn’t know what the mayor was talking about either. “I’m just trying to make good policy for the city,” Suen said. “It just seems that there are a lot of things going on about that he didn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.”

His other rationale for having two committees was to give the other two City Council members (Stephanie Nguyen and Mayor Steve Ly) the chance to be involved. There are only two City Council Members allowed on a committee per Brown Act rules.

On May 9, Ly had brought up the suggestion on how to provide jobs and training for students.

“My feeling is this might be a good opportunity to start reviewing and taking an opportunity to ask and direct staff to bring back to council a community workforce training agreement (project labor agreement),” he said at the earlier meeting. Ly noted that he has seen an surge of students who didn’t go to college be in limbo because they can’t get jobs.

“Specifically, I have an interest in prevailing wage jobs. I like to push that we need jobs to invest our tax dollars locally. Part of that is providing apprenticeships for students.”

Ly also said at the May 9 meeting that he was interested in the quality of work that is provided through such apprenticeships and suggested that staff look at public works contracts valued at $500,000 and up.

At the time, he asked that the staff reach out to stakeholders (the trades) and come back with a report so that the council could talk about the subject.  However, staff came back with a rather broad agenda item for this week’s meeting: “Discussion of Workforce Development, Apprenticeship Programs, Wages on Public Projects, and Related Topics.”

That topic brought forth a slew of comment from union and non-union building representatives and at least a couple of contractors, who spoke out mostly against project  labor agreements.

A project labor agreement (PLA) is an pre-hire agreement that can be used on both public and private projects, and the provisions are set by both parties to meet the needs of a particular project. Typically, they favor union shops. Employees hired for the project are referred through union hiring halls, non-union member pay union dues for the duration of the project, and the contractor follow union rules on work conditions.

Although Ly used the term “community workforce training agreement” to describe his proposal, many in the construction trade community interpreted that to mean “project labor agreements”, especially when he spoke about requiring apprenticeships and prevailing wages in those contracts.

At least two representatives for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Northern California spoke out against the city adopting PLA’s as they would not be able to take advantage of existing apprenticeship programs, some may not be union run.

Richard Markuson who represented the Western Electrical Contractors Association, as well as other trade groups, said there are no differences between apprenticeships offered by union shops and non-union companies, as all apprenticeships are regulated by state and federal laws.
He also noted that even if Elk Grove were to enact a PLA, it wouldn’t accomplish some of Ly’s goal, such as paying prevailing wages in the use of an apprentice.

“A PLA or community workforce agreement does not control that,” Markuson said. “It cannot set wages than what is prevailing wage which are established by the state of California.”

As to the requirement about local hires, he noted that “they cannot be mandated” and even if the agreements set certain goals for local hires, unscrupulous employers can still bring in workers from outside the area and have them considered local workers.

Moreover, he noted that under the law that mandates the use of skilled and train workforce (apprentices), it has a provision which exempts projects operating under a PLA to report what portion of the workforce on the project are apprentices.

He also suggested that the city contact the 300 or so members of the Associated Builders and Contractors to see if they would be willing to bid on city projects if there was a PLA in place. “We suspect they would not,” he said.

Eric Christen , Executive Director for the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said his group was formed 20 years ago specifically to oppose PLAs.

“Right now, there’s such a tight market right now – there’s not enough bidders, not enough workers to do the jobs already out there, and you want to make this even more difficult?” he asked. “What is the problem that this solution is looking to rectify?”

But at least two union supporters were in favor of Mayor Ly’s proposal, including Cherie Cabral, CQ a former Rio Vista City Council member who was representing the State Construction Trade Council and Labor Management Trust.

“Please do not be misled,” she said, adding that other public entities have made similar requirements in their contracts. “They have been extremely successful. They have been successful at putting youth back to work.”

Cabral indicated that project labor agreements would really help disadvantaged members of our community. “They are turning around individuals from extremely socio-economic disadvantaged portions of the community that really didn’t have a lot of prospects otherwise and guiding them in an appropriate direction, to give them careers, to give them good jobs, to give them the capacity to earn a dignified living, and being able to create a pension for themselves. This is not a union/non- union issue.”

City Council Decides To Form
Two Ad Hoc Committees

Important to note, when it came time for the Elk Grove City Council to discuss the issue and decide what to do next, it wasn’t as clear-cut as Ly would make it out to be.

“I heard a lot of things,” said Suen. “I heard you mention youth, apprenticeship program, and at the last meeting, I thought I heard you say community workforce agreements as well.”

Hume agreed. “I’m a little confused as to what we’re driving toward,” he said, adding that the vague title for the agenda item didn’t help. “We can’t dive into the weeds to much in the agenda item last time (due to the) confusion as to what we’re actually discussing,” he said. “So I just want to put it out there: I don’t think any of us up here is gearing toward a PLA necessarily.”

Council Member Steven Detrick said he was all in favor of encouraging more people to pursue careers in the building trades and to encourage companies to offer apprenticeships. He noted that he had gone through three apprenticeship programs himself, but he didn’t think it was necessarily it was the city’s place for the city to require them.

“I don’t believe this is really a city function to manage,” he said. “As leaders, we can pull everybody together and take all the folks – union, non-union – all the other players I’ve mention – get a hold of the school district and really champion this program.”

Ly didn’t think that deferring to the schools to provide training and apprenticeships would be enough to get students jobs.

“Ideally, we would love to have schools step up to it and they can train as many students and prepare them to go into the trades, but if they cross that threshold, (it won’t work) if we as a public entity using tax dollars are not making a requirement to make sure we engage in local hires,” Ly said.

Suen said he would be happy to serve on a committee to explore careers in construction in public works programs for youths and others, such as veterans. He also noted that he had been working on the issue of apprenticeships with city staff for at least a month before Ly brought up the subject.

Ly asked if he shouldn’t serve on the same committee if Suen wanted clarity on what he wanted the City Council  to work on but Suen noted that Ly seemed to focus more on youth, and that Nguyen was also more interested in workforce development. Suen then suggested that Ly serve on the committee for that with Nguyen.

“I don’t know how you can distinguish the difference,” said Ly.

But Suen said it’s clear there are two different topics. One focus is on career pathways in building trades. The other is on workforce development.

Nguyen also agreed that the issue should be split.

“I work with community based organizations, and folks who work with this population (rather than the trades), ” she said. “How do we make sure they are successful? I think those are two separate issues.”

In the end, the Elk Grove City Council voted to form two ad hoc subcommittees.

Still Ly wanted to invoke chairman’s privilege and ask city staff to sit down with the trades. He expressed his wish for them to to talk about requiring apprenticeships for local youths. However, that suggestion was turned down since it wasn’t clear what the rest of the City Council wanted to do.

“If we don’t have clear direction, we wouldn’t know what to bring back to you,” said City Attorney Jonathan Hobbs. “Let’s proceed with what we have.”

It was not clear how soon the committees would meet or report back to the Elk Grove City Council with their findings.

Ly wasn’t happy with the arrangement.

“This is a delaying tactic,” he said after the meeting. “Work should be done with staff. They can sit down with the people who came up (to speak at the City Council meeting). I don’t have the time to discuss this with all the stakeholders. That’s why we pay staff – that is their role. We still need to have this sit down with the trades and that hasn’t happened.”

Suen said he plans to have his committee meet next week. He noted that he and Detrick had started a committee to look into apprenticeships a year ago. However, work had fallen by the wayside until about a month ago, when Suen decided to pick it back up.

“This wasn’t something that was ready to be voted upon,” Vice-Mayor Suen said.  Asked if he thought Mayor Ly had taken his idea, Suen responded, “I will let the public be the judge of what they want to interpret.” He went on,  “I’m here to lift up our city and I will continue to do so.”

About The Author

Tillie Fong

Tillie is a recovering news junkie and real life Lady Bird. She is a former staff writer for Rocky Mountain News in Colorado, and former on-call reporter for The Sacramento Bee.

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