Supervisor Don Knabe is resisting union efforts to require a labor agreement for a broad range of construction projects at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The brewing MTA labor battle has yet to spill into public view. But behind the scenes, Knabe has refused to take action on a proposed “project labor agreement” for the duration of his term as chair of the MTA board, which ends in July.

Such an agreement would compel MTA contractors to use union labor. Construction unions have been pushing for PLAs at several local agencies, including the Port of L.A., L.A. County and the Expo Metro Line Construction Authority.

Knabe, one of two Republicans on the Board of Supervisors, has made it clear to MTA staffers that he won't allow the proposed agreement to come onto the agenda as long as he's chair.

The agreement was expected to go before the board in April, but Knabe's spokeswoman, Cheryl Burnett, said it was delayed “to ensure a level playing field for small and minority-owned businesses.”

“The Supervisor's term ends in July so it makes sense not to start reviewing in May or June,” she said.

Labor leaders are pushing for an agreement that would require union labor on major MTA projects, including the 12 transit projects funded by Measure R.

“It's incumbent on the board to look seriously at this issue,” said John Choi, economic development director at the L.A. County Federation of Labor. “The public has a strong interest in making sure these projects are built with the highest quality labor and built without going over budget.”

Even without a PLA, the vast majority of workers on MTA projects already belong to unions. State law also requires that even non-union employees be paid prevailing union wages. A PLA would primarily affect smaller businesses, who fear they would be unable to bid on MTA projects if the agreement is passed.

“It is definitely a financial burden and an administrative burden,” said Lucia Tam, a Realtor who chairs the MTA's Transportation Business Advisory Council. “They're trying to make the small, minority-owned businesses become union in order to bid.”

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas led the effort to approve a PLA at the Expo Construction Authority last month, and is leading the charge to implement one at MTA as well. Ridley-Thomas argues that a PLA would put teeth in requirements for local hiring.

“It's an idea that has been fully vetted,” Ridley-Thomas said. “My expectation is that the matter will be discussed in an appropriate manner before the full board.”

In February 2009, President Obama issued an executive order that reversed a Bush Administration ban on PLAs for federally funded projects. Under the Obama Administration, project labor agreements are now “encouraged” for projects of $25 million or more.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will succeed Knabe as chair of the MTA board in July. Having come out of the labor movement, Villaraigosa is expected to have no qualms about putting the PLA on the agenda.

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