Renovations to the North Berkeley Library may be one of the first projects to be considered with the new “keep it local” trade union agreement.
Renovations to the North Berkeley Library may be one of the first projects to be considered with the new “keep it local” trade union agreement.

By John C. Osborn

The Berkeley City Council unanimously voted Tuesday night to enter into a landmark agreement with a number of trade unions that would give Berkeley and Green Corridor workers top priority for most contracted city projects.

The move has garnered the support of many local union workers who see the agreement as a way to help provide local prevailing wage jobs, but it is seen by some as a distortion of the free market, where competition over projects will be less fair and more expensive.

The decision by the council to enter into what is known as a Community Workforce Agreement makes Berkeley the first city in Northern California, and the second in the state, to approve a comprehensive, citywide local labor ordinance. Both San Francisco and Oakland have similar, but less comprehensive, agreements.

Under the three-year agreement, signed by the city, the Alameda Building Trades Council and 22 other trade organizations, projects contracted out by the city worth more than $1 million must have 30% of total labor hours prioritized to Berkeley workers first — union or non-union. If Berkeley workers cannot fill the requirement, workers located within the East Bay Green Corridor gain priority; the Green Corridor was established in 2007 and takes in UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the cities of Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, Emeryville, Alameda, Albany, El Cerrito and San Leandro. Finally, if no workers can be found at either of those levels, a search throughout all of Alameda County comes next before a contractor can bring in out-of-county help.

The new agreement will not only create jobs in the short term, said Alameda Building Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Andreas Cluver, but will provide the means for residents to develop long-term careers.

“We can guarantee labor harmony on these projects,” Cluver said, “which I think is very important.”

That harmony comes in the form of several provisions within the agreement that bar workers from engaging in any job actions if there is a grievance with the contractor, including picketing, slowdowns, and striking.

Instead, any conflicts between workers and contractors would be resolved through a mediation process where the city would act as arbiter. And under the agreement, the only legitimate cause for action by the union would be if contractors stop making payments into union trust funds.

At the council meeting Tuesday, the room was filled with union laborers and supporters, many of whom shared their personal tales as a union member.

Dennis Caputo, a 28-year journeyman, said he was able to afford a home in Berkeley thanks to the wage he was able to get through his union. He supported the agreement, mainly because of the growing difficulty of finding work due to siminar agreements in surrounding communities. “It’s getting harder and harder for us to find work,” Caputo said.

Long-time Berkeley resident Judith Gatewood, a 30-year union carpenter, said that the new agreement will add prosperity to the community. “It’s a rough place,” Gatewood said. “Most non-union jobs do not have benefits.”

Mayor Tom Bates said the agreement will be a “living document” while all the kinks are fixed over the years. For example, after the first year, the city will review the agreement to determine the impact to local Berkeley contractors, if there has been an increase in project costs, and whether it would be feasible to drop the project threshold from $1 million to $250,000.

As for enforcement, the city will levy a $0.10 per hour per worker fee on contractors that will go into an account to pay the costs to maintain the program.

Although no one spoke out against the agreement at Tuesday’s meeting, the city received a number of letters in opposition, including from Eric Christen, Executive Director for the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, who asked the council in a letter why it was about to discriminate against non-union workers. He accused the council of playing into the interests of the big labor unions and chastised the “enlightened progressives” on the council.

“Do you believe it’s OK to force workers who are union-free to pay benefit monies into union benefit trusts that they will never benefit from?” Christen wrote.

Interested in issues surrounding doing business in Berkeley? Be sure to attend Berkeleyside’s first Local Business Forum on Monday January 24, 7-9pm at the Freight & Salvage. Doors open at 6.30 and it’s free.

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