Sunday, November 22, 2009

More push back against CBAs in Sonoma County

Apparently, New Yorkers aren't the only people to be skeptical about CBAs. Bucking the California trend, the CBA for Sonoma Mountain Village has not been well received.

Last month, CBAs were accused of creating an anti-business climate. An op-ed this week calls them anti-competitive "special interest giveaways," and claims that coalitions use "power politics" to prevent non-union contractors from winning bids. The article's author, John Corry, is on the board of the Associated Building and Contractors Golden Gate Chapter.

The way it works, Mr. Corry says, is that supposed "community" groups force developers to enter into project labor agreements (PLAs), which require union labor. Developers weigh the added costs of union labor against the likely costs of community groups' threatened litigation, and often give in. One commenter helpfully calls this "greenmail."* This manipulative behavior doesn't just cost the developer more, it also forces non-union contractors out of the bidding process.

Mr. Corry makes some good points: a CBA doesn't represent the community just because it says it does; CBAs often use "power politics;" and they can favor special interests.

But Mr. Corry's article is tall on criticism and short on context.

CBAs, by their nature, favor special interests, but this is not necessarily bad. The development process has long been dominated by different and more powerful interest groups: tycoons, monopolists, propertied gentry, chambers of commerce, building trades associations, national development companies, etc. Unions can be put on this list too, but that doesn't reflect on their inherent societal value. Mr. Corry also fails to recognize that CBA coalitions represent more than union viewpoints. Commonly, coalitions bring together neighborhood groups, environmentalists, civil rights supporters, faith-based organizations, urbanists, affordable housing advocates, community development groups, living wage supporters, etc. CBAs give these historically disempowered groups a way to engage successfully in interest group politics, and the diversity of viewpoints that they bring to the table can ideally strengthen the democratic nature of the planning process.

Similarly, the fact that CBA coalitions use leverage, or power politics, to achieve their goals is not necessarily manipulative; developers, after all, certainly use political influence to their own advantage as well.

Mr. Corry's complaints that PLAs and CBAs end up costing taxpayers more is arguable. I'm not one to make absolute statements about this type of economic issue, but I will point out that many government entities, including New York and the White House, have determined that PLAs can be an effective method for lowering construction costs and decreasing the likelihood of labor disturbances. Moreover, PLAs can help to ensure that workers receive living wages and other labor benefits, even if they are not part of a union. (PLAs, contrary to Mr. Corry's statements, do not always foreclose non-union contractors and non-union employees from working on projects. See here for more details.) Regardless, PLAs are typically negotiated separately from CBAs, and even when they are included, they are but one negotiation element among many others.

Finally, Mr. Corry fails to acknowledge the breadth of qualitative and quantitative positive impacts that CBAs can have. It may be true that some CBAs will be astroturf, or unenforceable, or overly expensive, or extortion, but Mr. Corry's generalizations are too simplistic to give us any help in avoiding such outcomes.

* "Greenmail" it seems, is already a term for a type of corporate takeover strategy. (Wikipedia.) A quick google search will get you only a few results using greenmail to mean environmental blackmail. (National Right to Work Committee; NYT (quoting Mr. Corry's organization); The Register.)

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