Union victory as Sacramento County supervisors approve key labor decision for airport renovation

In a victory for union workers, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors has approved a plan requiring that construction work on the $1.3 billion renovation and expansion of Sacramento International Airport be primarily done by union members.

Nonunion groups had opposed the late Tuesday afternoon decision by the Board of Supervisors, arguing that it would increase construction costs because nonunion contractors won’t bid, meaning less contractors competing for the airport project.

The 3-2 vote by the Board of Supervisors to implement what is known as a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) shows the political power of the unions, who had heavily lobbied the supervisors and airport officials.

PLA’s are reached prior to beginning government-funded construction projects. Work conditions and hours are negotiated and work stoppages are prohibited. It is also set in advance, which unions will be assigned to specific construction jobs to prevent disputes.

With limited exceptions, given Tuesday’s vote, nonunion contractors who bid on the airport construction project, would be required to use union construction workers ahead of their own workers.

A county commissioned survey found that 70% of nonunion contractors would be less likely to bid if a PLA was put into place.

The labor agreement airport officials will be required to sign will be with the Sacramento-Sierra Building Trades Council, which represents Sacramento area unions and their members.

Its president Todd Schiavo told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the labor agreement was the best way to proceed.

“The use of highly skilled workers saves money because such workers are more productive and efficient and are less likely to be involved in job-site accidents or make costly mistakes,” he said. “In addition, studies have shown that the use of a skilled and trained workforce results in better energy efficiency performance in buildings reducing long-term operating costs.”

But Melissa Bradway a business development association with Rex Moore Contractors & Engineers in Sacramento, made the case for nonunion labor.

“According to the Labor Department’s recently released Union Density Report, 86% of California’s construction workforce is nonunion,” she told the Board of Supervisors.“That means you’re only getting 14% of the industry’s knowledge and skill. We have a team of engineers, estimates and foremen that are trained to seek out cost savings, schedule savings and discrepancies of plans.”

Whether the airport hires union or nonunion labor, the wages paid will be the same. Under federal and state rules. Sacramento International Airport and other government agencies must pay what is known as “prevailing wages” to all construction workers.

Voting in favor of the PLA on Tuesday were the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Rich Desmond,Patrick Kennedy and Phil Serna while opposing it were Sue Ford and Pat Hume.

Winning labor peace

The three supervisor proponents of the PLA argued that the agreement would ensure a smooth construction process for the Sacramento International Airport renovation projects while the two opponents expressed concern about higher construction costs because of fewer bidders.

The city of Sacramento already has a PLA in place on major construction projects as do most urbanized counties, cities and large airports in California.

But Sacramento County has been a holdout. The last major construction project at the county-run airport, the completion of a new $1.03 billion Terminal B in 2011, was done by a combination of union and nonunion contractors.

Cindy Nichol, the Sacrament County Department of Airports director, spoke favorably about the PLA to the Board of Supervisors.

She said she has talked to other airport directors nationwide about their experiences with the project labor agreements.

“I’ve been surprised at directors who have told me that they would not have been able to conduct their large capital programs without a PLA,” she said. “And I will say that those are folks are from places that I would not have expected, Florida, Ohio, other places.”

Nichol said it’s important for the construction project to go smoothly because the current airport facilities can’t handle the post-pandemic passenger demand.

“I hear about this every week if not every day,” she said.

Nichol was not at Sacramento International when construction occurred for the new Terminal B but she said she was told by a former airport official that there had to be separate construction access entrances for union and union construction workers.

She said that it added $1 million a year to the construction costs.

The first part of the new airport construction project, a pedestrian walkway connecting the ticket counters and luggage claim area of Terminal B with the gate area, will not be subject to the PLA.

Airport officials said they have already started awarding contracts for the project. The walkway will provide an alternative to the Automated People Mover that connects the two parts of the terminal.

But the next phase, a second parking garage, designed to relieve the chronic lack of parking spaces at the airport, and future parts of the renovation plan and expansion plan, will be subject to the PLA.

They include gate extensions at Terminal A and B, a new rental car center and a transportation center, that is supposed to make it easier for pedestrian and rideshare pickups.

The entire airport project, called SMF Forward, is supposed to be completed by the end of 2028.