A seat at the table: Fresno using agreement for local, minority workers in airport project

Work for Fresno’s $115 million airport expansion project will be done under a labor agreement targeting local workers and contractors — particularly small businesses, ethnic minorities, veterans and women.

The Fresno City Council voted unanimously Thursday to pursue a project labor agreement for the FATforward project, promising also to open up negotiations to non-union labor groups. Mayor Lee Brand also voiced his support for the project labor agreement.

The Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) expansion project will expand parking and the airport’s international terminal, among other things. Work is expected to begin in 2021 with project completion by 2022.

From 2000 to 2014, the city banned project labor agreements. The FATForward project will be Fresno’s second. The construction of the current city hall building in the 1990s was the first.

A project labor agreement is a pre-hire negotiated agreement with labor groups for a specific project. Typically, the city of Fresno puts out requests for proposal for construction where contractors and builders bid on projects.

Thursday’s vote signifies the start of negotiations.

Mayor Lee Brand noted that the agreement will help open up opportunities to people and communities who sometimes are overlooked when large projects more forward.

“For many years, Fresno has had this narrative of generational poverty, high unemployment and high crime. We need to change that,” Brand said during the council meeting. “To me, this is an opportunity to start to change the narrative of Fresno.”

Although the council vote was unanimous, some groups voiced opposition, calling project labor agreements exclusionary since many exclude non-union contractors.

Nicole Goehring with the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) Northern California chapter, said in an op-ed for The Bee that PLAs discourage local construction firms from bidding since many are non-union. “As a result, local skilled, trained and certified workers miss out on work in their backyard that they have spent their careers performing,” she said.

Eric Christen, the executive director for the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said PLAs result in wage theft. A PLA would benefit a “special interest group,” he said. “If you’re going to do this right, having everybody at the table is great way to start.”

District 3 Council Member Miguel Arias said he understands their position, but he disagreed. “From way out in Sacramento, you want to tell us how to invest our funds in Fresno. Thank, but no thanks,” he told them, prompting applause from the audience in the council chambers. “From my perspective, this is long overdue.”

Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.