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Harbor Commissioners Approve ‘Once in a Generation’ Project Labor Agreement for Humboldt Offshore Wind Terminal Project; Union Reps Laud Unanimous Decision

Text and images by Isabella Vanderheiden - Lost Coast Outpost, August 11, 2023

Local contractors and labor union members packed Eureka’s Wharfinger Building Thursday night to give the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Board of Commissioners their two cents on a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) for the Humboldt Offshore Wind Terminal Project that could guarantee local jobs for years to come.

The PLA outlines the general terms and conditions for labor employment affiliated with the first stages of port development on Humboldt Bay. The agreement has sparked opposition from some local construction companies that run non-union shops as it will require non-union workers to pay toward the union trust fund.

The Harbor District has spent the last year working with members of the Humboldt-Del Norte County Building and Construction Trades Council, the State Building and Construction Trade Council of the State of California, and other local labor representatives to develop the agreement, which is required by federal law. The contractors and subcontractors who are awarded contracts to work on the heavy lift marine terminal will be subject to the provisions of the agreement, including no-strike, no-lock-out clauses to eliminate delays associated with labor unrest. 

“This is an agreement between the district and the labor unions that we’re going to have a smooth labor transition and that there’s going to be no disruption to the workforce,” said Larry Oetker, executive director of the Harbor District. “But in return, there are some hiring stipulations that are included in [the document].”

The agreement details hiring priorities for “disadvantaged workers,” or local residents who, prior to the project, experienced barriers to employment, as noted in section 2.9.

Oetker said district and union representatives agreed to make a couple of small changes to sections 2.9 and 8.8 to address some of the concerns brought forth by the Humboldt Builders Exchange. The proposed amendment changes section 2.9 to note that the “disadvantaged workers” would be “prioritized in the following order for dispatch”:

  • Enrolled tribal members or the spouse of an enrolled tribal member of a federally recognized tribe within Humboldt or Del Norte counties,
  • Residents of the Samoa Peninsula from Mad River Slough to the North Jetty,
  • Veterans,
  • Commercial fishermen,
  • Individuals who have completed the Building Trades Multi-Craft Core Curriculum Pre-Apprenticeship Program

The Humboldt Builders Exchange, a non-profit construction trade association representing over 300 licensed general contractors and sub-contractors, asked the Harbor District to pull the PLA from the commission’s agenda ahead of Thursday’s meeting to provide more time for public review. The district declined the request due, in part, to an upcoming deadline for a grant application due on Aug. 21.

(Commissioners unanimously approved the grant application – which could bring in as much as $250 million for port development– early on in the meeting. If approved, the grant funds will go toward the initial phases of the port development project.)

Oetker acknowledged that the district wasn’t able to include everything the Humboldt Builders Exchanged had asked for in the PLA but said, “We honestly listened to their concerns and tried to do as much as we [could].”

“We will be coming forward with a number of other agreements over time, and in particular when we bring in the bid documents,” Oetker continued. “It is our intention to also have local contracting preferences in the bid document. And so, you shouldn’t look at this as this is the only opportunity to get items in here. … And as I mentioned in the beginning … we’re talking about transformational change for Humboldt County and we cannot do this alone. We need the county, we need all the other governmental organizations, we need the labor unions, we need the non-union companies, we need the environmental community, we need everybody to help us to do this project and make this change.”

Turning to comments from the commission, Commissioner Stephen Kullmann expressed broad support for the floating offshore wind development and emphasized the importance of acting quickly to address climate change.

“What we are doing here today is really fueling something a lot greater than everything here,” he said. “Along with all the benefits that are gonna come to the local area, we’re doing something huge and we’re doing that together as a community. … This is going to be increased jobs. This is not going to be a net loss of jobs to anybody, whether you’re union or not.”

Similarly, Commissioner Craig Benson called the PLA a “once-in-a-generation opportunity,” and expressed concern that union and non-union people “will fracture over how we divide this pie that benefits all of us.” 

Commission President Greg Dale noted that the PLA “is a necessary evil” required by the federal government to move ahead on federally funded projects and urged attendees to consider the big picture. 

“Construction of the heavy lift marine terminal is going to provide two to three years’ worth of work,” Dale said. “On that terminal, they’re gonna manufacture and assemble large wind turbines for 35 to 50 years and they’re gonna maintain those. This [PLA] is two years of that. I want everybody to understand that what this terminal means to this community is not necessarily all involved in this [PLA]. … We get this work for the next 30 years.”

If the terminal project doesn’t move forward, “they’re gonna go build it in Long Beach,” he said. “And if you don’t think they can do it faster than we can put this one together, you’re absolutely wrong. That’s why this is so urgent to us.”

More than 50 people spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. The vast majority of speakers – many of whom were union members or representatives – spoke in favor of the agreement.

Jeff Hunerlach, district representative for Operating Engineer’s Local #3, said the PLA would allow union employees currently working out of the area to return home to their families and work in the community.

“My wife has been out of the area for over four years and I’m grateful to have her back,” he said. “This is an opportunity where they can come back into this community.”

Speaking to the non-union contractors present, Hunerlach said, “We want to partner with you and we want to help grow your businesses – that’s what this PLA does.”

Jared Mumm, a Santa Rosa-based representative of IBEW Local 551, also spoke in favor of the PLA and the importance of hiring local workers.

“In the competitive bidding process, there is no guarantee that a local contractor gets that work. There’s no guarantee that your neighbors are on those projects,” Mumm said. “Right now here in town, there is a very large facility where there are electricians from Los Angeles taking out every single light on campus and replacing them. It’s good, you’re gonna get nice new bright lights, but there’s not a single local electrician on that project and there’s no PLA to chase them away.”

Several other community members spoke in favor of the PLA, including Connie Stewart, Executive Director of Initiatives at Cal Poly Humboldt, who talked about the university’s role in training the workforce that will be needed for offshore wind development.

“I just want to say that I’m so happy to have the local-hire language [in the PLA] because all of the signatories on the building trades know I want training programs located in Humboldt County,” she said. “I want them all to bring the training programs back and I don’t want our children to have to drive more than one hour to get trained to be able to work at the port.”

Luis Neuner, an environmental advocate with the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), also spoke in favor of the agreement, emphasizing that it will “make way for good paying jobs, a strong local economy, a workforce and a port project of quality.” He said the agreement is a step in the right direction and will “establish labor standard that we can all be proud of” but emphasized that this is not the end of the road.

“This cannot be the end of workforce development on this project,” Neuner said. “We need to ensure that local folks who want to get hired, get hired. We must also exhaust all efforts to ensure that our local community, tribal nations and at-risk population stays safe. That will have to happen through additional agreements. It’s not every day unions and enviros see eye to eye on things … but today we do.”

Robert Hemsted, Vice-Chair of the Trinidad Rancheria, said he appreciated the modifications that were made to the PLA but said he was reluctant to offer his full support.

“There’s been a lot of changes in the last week but it’s only been released a week, so it was kind of difficult to give it a thorough review. No one had a real chance to ask questions,” he said. “A little more review time would have been what I would have appreciated, personally. I appreciate you guys reaching out to numerous tribes – the Trinidad Rancheria was not one of them. … But I understand where you guys were and where it’s going.”

Lynette Mullen, an independent contractor hired to advocate on behalf of the Humboldt Builders Exchange, also thanked the district and union reps for making the last-minute changes to the agreement but still felt the PLA was unfair to non-union workers.

“Other contractors just wanted the opportunity to put their guys to work without forcing them to join a union,” she said. “If these guys want to join unions, if people are unhappy with the people they’re working for, they can join a union. They can leave. But I think people are very frustrated that they’re being forced to join a union and pay into the union just because they’re contractors here in Humboldt County.”

Similarly, Chris Albright of O&M Industries said his team “just wanted a fair shake.” He criticized the earlier point made about arguing over dividing the proverbial pie because non-union contractors will only receive one percent of the total dollar value of project work, as stipulated in section 3.4.9.

“We’re a family-owned business –we’re on our third generation – and we don’t do that by screwing over our employees,” he said. “We have to work really hard. … And our thanks for that is ‘don’t fight over one percent – $250,000 – you’re not at the table.’ … Give us an opportunity next time.”

Following public comment, Commissioner Benson acknowledged the difficult decision at hand, adding that he didn’t know how he would end up voting on the item.

“The PLA checks most – if not all – the boxes,” he said. “I really agree with CORE Hub and the Trinidad Rancheria that we can do better as a commission and that we still need to develop very tangible Community Benefits Agreements. … I also share sadness with Lynette Mullen in that there’s inequity in this agreement for local non-union shops. … The [jobs] are not off the table but they’re limited. So, where does this leave me? … I still don’t know how I’m gonna vote to this moment.”

Commissioner Patrick Higgins said “it’s a good deal,” adding that he planned to vote for it. “I understand these questions and they’re kind of deeply philosophical [as it relates] to the union and non-union, kind of open shop thing, but the law says if we want a $250 million [grant] from the fed, pass a PLA,” he said. “I think this community deserves it.

Commissioner Aaron Newman and President Dale expressed sympathy with local construction workers and acknowledged the difficult decision before the commission but also indicated that they would vote in favor of the PLA.

Commissioner Higgins had made a motion to approve the agreement at the beginning of the discussion, which was seconded by Commissioner Benson. Before voting on the item, Oetker reminded commissioners of the amendment to the motion to allow for the minor modification to the PLA. They agreed to accept the change.

The motion passed 5-0.

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