The first leg of California's High-Speed Rail project goes through the Central Valley, one of the most economically depressed areas of the state. Given that, a hiring policy that seeks to give preferences to "disadvantaged workers," including unemployed veterans, homeless people, single parents on government assistance and high school dropouts, is a laudable goal. That it also includes preferences for the unemployed who have "a criminal record or involvement with the criminal justice system" goes too far.
That is one of the provisions of the Community Benefits Agreement recently approved by the California High-Speed Rail Authority that has drawn justifiable attention from critics.
People who are qualified, have been in prison and served their debt to society should not be denied a chance to work on high-speed rail or any other government project. But that they should be given preference above other equally qualified long-term unemployed is absurd.
But before anyone gets too upset about preferences for ex-cons or homeless or even veterans for that matter, it's important to understand that those categories of "disadvantaged workers" are not the real focus of the Community Benefits Agreement. They are a distraction.
The real beneficiaries of the agreement are the state's building trades unions. Embedded in the agreement are provisions that make it more likely that union workers will be employed on the project almost exclusively.
Besides ex-cons, homeless persons and veterans, the agreement – under the definition of "disadvantaged workers" – includes union apprentices "with less than 15 percent of the apprenticeship hours required to graduate to journey level." It's union apprentices who are expected to receive the bulk of any hiring slots that go to "disadvantaged workers."
Another key provision in the agreement requires nonunion contractors who subcontract for work on high-speed rail to pay into the union retirement funds and health and benefit funds. Nonunion contractors have to pay regardless of the fact that they may have their own company pension plan and despite the fact that their own workers may not be members of the union.
Given the size and complexity of the high-speed rail project, unions will capture a sizable share of the work. No one ever disputed that.
Indeed, the five international teams that were certified as qualified general contract bidders have all signed agreements with the state's building trades and crafts unions.
But the Community Benefits Agreement – approved administratively with little or no public discussion – virtually ensures that smaller, nonunion contractors will have to pay union wages and union benefits to get a piece of this public works pie. There are thousands of such contractors, and all of them fall into a separate category of "disadvantaged" when it comes to benefiting from the high-speed rail project.