Harbor District to Talk Labor Agreement Amid Request for Delay


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A series of examples of what the Harbor District's old pulp mill property would look like re-built as the Humboldt Bay Offshore Wind Heavy Lift Marine Terminal. - THE HUMBOLDT BAY HARBOR, RECREATION AND CONSERVATION DISTRICT
  • The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District
  • A series of examples of what the Harbor District's old pulp mill property would look like re-built as the Humboldt Bay Offshore Wind Heavy Lift Marine Terminal.
When the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation Commission convenes Thursday at Eureka's Wharfinger Building, it will face two large and related agenda items.

First, it will consider authorizing staff to submit a U.S. Department of Transportation mega grant application hoped to total in the hundreds of millions of dollars to go toward construction of the Humboldt Offshore Wind Terminal Project. Then, it will consider approving a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) — the first of its kind in the county — that will govern who works on the aforementioned project to transform the old Pulp Mill property on the Samoa Peninsula into a state-of-the-art heavy lift multipurpose terminal specifically designed to serve the offshore wind farm proposed to be located 20 miles off Humboldt Bay.

In the days since the district released its meeting agenda Friday, the second one has become a bit contentious, with the Humboldt Builders' Exchange having asked the district to postpone a vote on the PLA for 30 days to allow it more time to review the document, concerned it puts its non-unionized member businesses — which it dubs "merit-based" or "open" shops — at a significant disadvantage.

Harbor District Executive Director Larry Oetker says it's not entirely coincidental that the two items are coming forward in concert. President Joe Biden issued an executive order last year dictating that any project receiving more than $35 million in federal funds is required to have a project labor agreement in place. Because the district anticipates its marine lift terminal will require "several hundred millions of dollars in federal funding," Oetker said staff knew it would need to forge such an agreement with local labor groups.

PLAs are pre-hire collective bargaining agreements typically negotiated between a project owner — in this case, the harbor district — and construction unions — in this case, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Humboldt and Del Norte counties and its state counterpart. The rough idea is that allowing workers to collectively bargain upfront gives them more leverage, keeping construction dollars local and often prioritizing investment in apprenticeship programs and other things of community benefit, while assuring project owners there won't be subject to work stoppages or other labor upheaval.

Oetker said the district's Offshore Wind Subcommittee started the process of negotiating a PLA by meeting with a variety of local unions, the Humboldt Builders' Exchange (which represents 300 member businesses) and other groups to hear what they wanted to see in such an agreement. Then, the district negotiated exclusively with Jeff Hunerlach, of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, and Chris Hannon, the president of the local union's statewide counterpart, which represents some 500,000 construction workers. (It should be noted the local trades council represents 14 individual unions, whose members are everything from bricklayers and elevators contractors to sheet metal workers and plumbers.)

The alternative of negotiating  a consensus agreement with a host of local stakeholders that included unions, tribes, non-unionized construction outfits and elected officials would be akin to herding cats, Oetker said, and seemed infeasible. But Oetker said he believes the district's process took into account what other groups wanted to see in a PLA, and delivered most of it.

"At the end of the day, it really gives employment opportunities for people in Humboldt County," Oetker says.

Lynette Mullen, who said she was hired by the Humboldt Builders' Exchange to find out what was going on with the PLA as rumors began to circulate that an agreement was close, said the organization feels the process is simply moving too fast after months of behind-closed-doors negotiations.

"The community has only six days to review and understand this before it goes to a vote," she said. "The only thing the Builders' Exchange is asking is that the harbor commission table the vote on Thursday for at least 30 days to give community members, contractors, workforce development folks, everyone, time to review the PLA and understand the potential impacts of its provisions."

And she said the organization already has some concerns about the agreement, saying it puts non-union construction companies at a distinct disadvantage and that it doesn't do enough to lift up traditionally marginalized groups — like local tribal members — or those who stand to be directly impacted by offshore wind, like the commercial fishing fleet.

Tim Hooven, the vice president of Hooven & Co., said one of the problems for "merit-based" shops is that the agreement requires non-union contractors to work through the union hall, paying union "fringe benefits" for their employees for benefits they won't receive. And for companies that already pay into employees' retirements and cover healthcare, Hooven said the union payments can add up in the neighborhood of an additional $60,000 in expenses per employee annually, putting outfits like his at significant financial disadvantage.

For his part, Oetker says the district's intent was to negotiate an agreement with organized labor, so it follows that the agreement would have some provisions friendly to unions. And he says he was successful in getting the "No. 1 issue the non-unions came to us with, "which was not including a skilled and trained workforce requirement."

Hunerlach said the agreement is a huge win for labor and Humboldt County.

"Listen, we represent people," he said. "The unions represent people, because that's what makes up the union. The Builders' Exchange, quite frankly, they represent companies."

The agreement, Hunerlach says, will prioritize local work crews and the training of a local workforce through a pre-apprenticeship program that will serve as a pipeline for workers to work on the project.

"This project is so big and so technical, you've got to have a skilled and trained workforce, and that's graduated apprentices who have been through an approved California apprenticeship program," he said.

Oetker said there's so much to be exited about with the port project, and pointed to the grant application as evidence. He said there's $1.1 million in there for a pedestrian trail in Samoa, $3 million for improvements to benefit the commercial fishing fleet, plans for a 2.9 megawatt solar array, $50 million in environmental restoration work and $7.2 million to start a community benefit program. And, he said, the Construction Trades Council is a strong partner in making this project a reality.

"The labor unions are a big political force and they've committed to really lobbying to support the project in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and we just can't do the project without federal and state support," he said.

As to the Humboldt Builders' Exchange's request that the commission delay a vote on the PLA, Oetker said that's up to the commission. But Oetker said the agreement was negotiated in good faith and can't be renegotiated in public.

"Either the public wants more time in order to understand the clauses of the agreement ... that is a very valid reason," Oetker said. "But if the reason is the idea that we're going to renegotiate the agreement, that's a different thing for the board to consider."

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10, at the Wharfinger Building, 1 Marina Way in Eureka. View the full agenda and draft PLA here.

Editor's note: This post was updated from a previous version to clarify the comments of Tim Hooven. The Journal regrets any confusion.


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