Year of the Rat

In purportedly progressive Sonoma County, why are so few construction projects non-union?

Every so often in Petaluma you’ll see a big blow-up rat near the site of the Basin Street Properties Riverfront development.

It’s a non-union job site just west of Highway 101 along the Petaluma River, and the rat comes courtesy of the building trades and union workers who continue to agitate against Basin Properties. The claim: The Nevada-based developer created an unhealthy work zone for an underpaid, non-union labor force.

It’s a heavy charge, and the riverfront development is a big deal in Petaluma, which, like so many small cities around the country, has confronted a persistent construction lag that dates to the Great Recession. The 40-acre project offers the renewal of a scruffy piece of turf and promises over 250 housing units, 90,000 square feet of commercial space, a park, a hotel and a boathouse.

But critics say Basin Street and a compliant Petaluma city council pushed the project through at the expense of local workers—and that an environmental review failed to adequately address arsenic levels in the soil. Union officials in the North Bay highlight that Petaluma hasn’t pushed hard enough for a living wage as the economy sputtered in the aftermath of the 2007 crash.

Jack Buckhorn of Local 551 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, says the Basin labor force mirrors the one that built local big-box outlets such as Target. “They’re going with the lowest-wage workers from the Central Valley, at $12 an hour,” he says. “That’s what’s been happening in Petaluma since the Great Recession.”

Meanwhile, says Lisa Maldonado of the North Bay Labor Council, those workers should be earning $35 an hour and getting the benefits of union membership—guarantees of worker safety, workers’ comp, healthcare and apprenticeships in their chosen trade.

Even if the Basin project is a done deal, she says, “the alive part of this story is that we are trying to get people in the North Bay to see that middle-class jobs are tied up with union building trades. One of the dirty secrets of what’s called ‘scab’ or ‘rat’ construction is that a lot of the times they exploit undocumented workers. People will be happy to be getting $15 an hour, when they should be getting $35.”

Basin Street Properties’ general counsel Paul Andronico did not return calls for comment.

Petaluma mayor David Glass voted against the Basin plan for reasons that had to do with a proposed synthetic-turf soccer field. He supported the project until the decision was made to go with grass—bad idea during a drought. Glass was one of the two “no” votes on the 5–2 Basin project vote, and says, “I’m not going to argue with the fact that the applicant [Basin Properties] had a very friendly city council.”

Glass says he is “always for a local hire preference to the extent that you are able to do it,” and is reluctant, he says, to demonize Basin given that Petaluma had no leverage over the composition of the work force. There were no public monies at play in the development.

There’s an emergent theme within the scrum over organized labor and its role in the economic recovery: There’s plenty of anti-union agitating going on in Sonoma County, much of it in the name of progress—not progressive values like a living wage and local employment, however.

Locally, much of the heavy anti-union lift is done through the North Coast Builders Exchange (NCBE), a trade association that has consistently opposed so-called project labor agreements. Those agreements are put in place before projects kick into gear and are designed to ensure that workers are treated fairly.

Chief executive officer of the NCBE Keith Woods did not return a phone call seeking comment, but a January 2014 op-ed in the Press Democrat, co-written by an NCBE employee, says it all in one loaded headline: “Project labor agreements are bad policy, costly to county.”

Local officials walk a fine line that highlights a schism, between “high road” and “low road” development, says Maldonado. She notes that progressive Sonoma County officials nixed a 2012 proposal that would have enacted a blanket policy of project labor agreements for big-ticket county jobs.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt was one of the “no” votes. He defended his vote and union posture in an email. “My relationship with labor, especially the building trades here in Sonoma County, is not defined by my suggestion of an alternate approach to project labor agreements. I would have gladly supported PLAs and offered a solution that included a bid alternate approach,” he writes.
“A bid alternate approach is as transparent as can be and tells the public the cost of a PLA along with its benefits.”

Rabbitt went on to defend his relationship with the likes of the left-leaning Service Employees International Union (SEIU ) and notes that “I think one can be supportive while not agreeing on every aspect of every item. Look at the fissure within the Democratic Party on the issue of fast-tracking trade treaties. The president is on a different side from labor. One wouldn’t say he is anti-labor because of that difference.”

Sonoma County Library