CEQA Juggernaut Rolls Through The High Desert

Loren Kaye
President of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education

When it comes to organized labor, California is a friendly state. We long ago eschewed right-to-work status. Labor unions enjoy a web of laws that ease organizing workers, like  farmworkers, refinery employees, teachers, and state and local government workers. Other laws give union contracts special status unavailable to nonunion employees, such as the ability to work longer days without triggering overtime and avoid the new sick leave mandate. Employers who obtain workers from a union hiring hall are not subject to the new joint liability mandate applicable to other labor contractors.

But who would have thought one of the most powerful union organizing tools may be the state’s premier environmental statute, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)?

CEQA is best known as the vanguard of disclosure, transparency and mitigation of environmental impacts. More recently, CEQA has been fingered as an easy ticket to litigation by project opponents, NIMBY activists, or even business competitors. Labor unions have leveraged the law to obtain sweetheart contracts for construction projects.

Add to that list – union organizing tool. And subtract 250 skilled manufacturing jobs.

Los Angeles County’s sprawling Metro system needs new rail cars, so the Metro board let a contract with Kinkisharyo International for 175 new cars. The company planned to assemble these cars in a new $50 million, 400,000 square-foot facility in Palmdale. They would eventually employ 250 skilled, well-paid workers.

Not so fast, said Local 11 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

As a public works project, it’s a given that  the job would pay prevailing wages, and it’s virtually certain that union workers would fill these jobs. But IBEW further insisted that the company allow the union to organize the workers by “card check,” which permits the union to gain exclusive representation if a majority of workers sign cards in its favor, without a secret ballot election. Not surprisingly, the company rejected this attempted power play, countering that the union should attempt to organize workers the old fashioned way.

So how did IBEW respond? By threatening to file a CEQA lawsuit.

A local “citizens group” was organized by the local and its law firm. They complained that the project could cause “widespread environmental damage.” Not explicitly stated, but surely well understood, was that these environmental impacts could be mitigated by permitting IBEW Local 11 to use card check to organize the plant’s employees.

Let’s be clear – there is nothing illegal or even that surprising about this tactic. CEQA has  developed into a blunt tool available to any party with the imagination to wield it. IBEW has joined a club that’s not terribly exclusive, but is frequently successful.

Sadly, the outcome was predictable.

The citizens group filed a CEQA appeal. Kinkisharyo has opted to look for a new out-of-state location for its plant in order to meet Metro’s delivery schedule. And the 250 jobs that could have bolstered the High Desert’s economy will be welcomed by a state that doesn’t prize litigation over economic growth.

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