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SLO enters talks with unions for a local worker preference on 'most expensive project' in city history 

San Luis Obispo City Hall bustled in a way it rarely does on July 10—with a jam-packed council chambers and a sizeable spillover crowd huddled in a conference room next door watching a video feed.

Attendees included local electricians, carpenters, pipefitters, and other skilled tradesmen. They were there to ask SLO City Councilmembers for a job.

SLO is nearing the start of construction on a series of upgrades to its nearly century-old Water Resource Recovery Facility on Prado Road. The renovations are years in the works and tardy; federal regulators all but mandated them as part of a 2014 discharge permit that requires the city to use a new disinfectant system to reduce pollutants in its treated wastewater that's flushed daily down the San Luis Creek to the ocean.

click to enlarge LOCAL JOBS? The city of SLO has opened negotiations for a Project Labor Agreement on long-awaited upgrades to its Water Resource Recovery Facility (pictured), in an effort to give local workers first dibs on the project. - IMAGE COURTESY OF THE CITY OF SLO
  • Image Courtesy Of The City Of SLO
  • LOCAL JOBS? The city of SLO has opened negotiations for a Project Labor Agreement on long-awaited upgrades to its Water Resource Recovery Facility (pictured), in an effort to give local workers first dibs on the project.

Coming in at an estimated $114 million, the upgrades mark "the most expensive" and "most complicated" public project "in the history of the city," according to SLO City Manager Derek Johnson. And local trade workers want first dibs on it.

Dozens showed up to the City Council study session on July 10 about Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) and asked the city to use one for the wastewater project. A PLA is a contract between a project owner and labor unions establishing the terms and conditions of employment for that project. A PLA has never been used in the city, but advocates argued it's the most sure-fire way to guarantee local workers are employed. That's because the PLA can include a local hire provision that gives first preference on any job to a local worker. Exactly what "local" means can be defined by the city.

"[A PLA] is an investment in our community," said Daniel Mora, a representative for the Central Coast Labor Council. "It helps really preserve the middle class in this city. ... It will involve skilled workers. ... It will get done on time and on budget."

The most recent example of a PLA used in SLO County was for the Topaz Solar Farm on the Carrizo Plain—a private project that commenced shortly after the recession hit in 2008.

Third District SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill described the project and its PLA provisions as "a saving grace for our community." One journeyman electrician who worked on it said the project "changed people's lives."

"Millions of solar panels and hundreds of jobs went to hardworking men and women in this community and throughout the county," the electrician, Jack Johnson, said.

Another solar farm worker said he'd struggled for years with substance abuse and stints in jail until he started an apprenticeship and was brought onto the project.

"I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. It essentially enabled me to be where I'm at today," he said. "I'll be forever grateful for that opportunity. It's had an immense positive impact on my life and career."

Many speakers alluded to the looming Diablo Canyon Power Plant closure as a loss for skilled laborers that public projects could help alleviate. They argued a PLA was critical for keeping those jobs local.

"I'm acutely aware of how many out-of-town and out-of-state electrical contractors work in SLO and bring their workforce with them," said Sean Perry, membership development coordinator for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 639.

The PLA earned support from the labor unions and groups like the SLO County Democrats and SLO Progressives. It received opposition from the Coalition for Fair Employment and Construction and the SLO County Builders Exchange, whose reps warned against increasing overall project costs and disenfranchising non-union workers.

"PLAs are always good for the union but not so much for the guy who has an open shop," said Cordelia Perry, executive director of the Builders Exchange.

After public comment, City Councilmembers voiced their support for a PLA, but expressed wariness about the timing. So did their staff. SLO has a deadline of November 2019 to stop current wastewater discharges it's already going to miss. There's no wiggle room left.

"Our schedule had a little bit of float in it, but all of our float has been used and more," Utilities Director Carrie Mattingly said. "The fact remains we are in a little bit of a pickle."

City Manager Johnson added that a PLA would be "a significant pivot for the city" at this juncture with "a lot of unknowns that we can't answer for you."

"Your team has a lot of balls in the air," he said. "The risks are real."

Ultimately, the City Council directed staff to negotiate a PLA for the project; but if terms couldn't be reached by Oct. 12, they'd move forward with a traditional construction bid with a local hire component, which reportedly would not be as strong as a PLA.

Administration of a successful PLA is estimated to cost the city between $176,000 and $277,000.

In supporting a PLA, City Councilmember Andy Pease emphasized her desire to hold a level playing field for non-union workers.

"Local is local," Pease said. "Whether you're a union or non-union [member], you can register at the union hall. That's important to me."

Mayor Heidi Harmon offered enthusiastic support for the idea.

"Our job is to stand up and stand with local people here and local families here," Harmon said. "I know a lot of union folks in general. When they're lifted, their entire family goes with them. This has huge rippling impacts. Unions are generally a force for good." Δ

Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at


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