How Union Deals Have Derailed The California High-Speed Railway


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California’s attempt to connect the state with a high-speed railway system has faced major setbacks thanks in part to union deals.

The California High Speed Rail Authority (HSR) began construction in 2014 with the hopes of connecting close to a dozens cities. The project has faced major delays and financial difficulties. The Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction (CFEC) notes the railway is plagued with problems — including union influence.

“The approval was made in 2008 and since then they have basically been struggling to get anything beyond an initial amount that was approved,” CFEC Executive Director Eric Christen told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The problem is that there’s no source of funding. The money that was approved with the vote isn’t even twenty percent of what they need to supposedly finish.”

Christen notes project organizers have been forced to find an additional $128 million in funding. The main issue is the project organizers at the beginning weren’t honest about the commitment the project would entail. Labor unions furthered the delays and costs for the little that has been done with the use of a project labor agreement (PLA).

“For the overpasses and for some of the initial groundwork that has been done,” Christen continued. “If you put this out to bid in a free, and open and competitive marketplace, free of the PLA, you would have had different results on those portions of it that have already been awarded, you would have different results than what you currently have.”

PLAs work like normal union contracts, but governor temporary projects in a given region. PLAs often prevent non-union companies from competing at a competitive rate by dictating wages and benefits. HSR spokeswoman Adeline Yee admits the project was delayed, but argues the problems that have been reported have been overblown.

“Construction did get off a bit slower than expected,” Yee told TheDCNF. “We had a lot of lawsuits that we had to handle, a lot of it had to do with getting the right of way to acquire the necessary permits for the gate construction. I think initially we were off to a slow start in actually getting some of the structures built, but since then we’ve made up a lot of time.”

State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (SBCTC) is the main labor group involved in the project. It is overseeing the labor agreements governing project workers and the local unions involved. Christen notes the full impact of its PLA has not even been fully realized and might never be because of how little progress has been made.

“I don’t think they’ll ever really get past phase one, which regards to actually breaking ground,” Christen continued. “What the PLA is emblematic of a lot of the deception that goes along with this. You’re limiting the ability of the people to work on this project to a very small group of unionized workers.”

The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) has done extensive research on what impact PLAs have on construction projects. ABC found the agreements in general tend to drive up costs for public projects and create delays. The agreements put additional burdens on taxpayers.

“The board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority gave Big Labor a huge favor in 2013, but it’s now blowing up in their face,” Center for Union Facts Executive Director Richard Berman told TheDCNF. “The project faces a multibillion-dollar shortfall and has been plagued by waste and inefficiency—which have been synonymous with Big Labor for too many years.”

Yee contends the union agreement is likely not a contributing factor to how much the project costs. She notes union and non-union companies alike could bid on the contracts. The bidding process was specifically designed to foster the best results and the best price for taxpayers.

“It’s a very competitive bidding process. The winning firm has to go through interviews, give a presentation and a plan of how we can meet expectations,” Yee continued. “We always try to take the best of the best, but also something that is economical as well. In doing so we are able to keep costs down.”

Nevertheless, PLAs have often been cited as giving unionized businesses an unfair advantage over non-union companies. Opponents note the agreements prevent non-union companies from competing for contracts at a competitive rate. The agreements essentially dictate the costs a company must operate by setting wage and benefit requirements.

“So-called Project Labor Agreements are an outrageous giveaway to union bosses at the expense of the taxpayers and workers who choose not to join a union,” National Right to Work Foundation said in a statement provided to TheDCNF. “Cost overruns and construction delays should be expected when contracts are given based on union status and ability to funnel forced union dues to favored politicians, instead of solely on merit.”

SBCTC did not respond to a request for comment by TheDCNF.

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