As scores of metal workers, electricians and union bosses looked on, Santa Ana City Council members last week approved a new and expanded community workforce agreement that requires certain public works projects to hire workers locally.

Contractors working on projects for the city public works department must use at least 30% of total work hours on specialized labor from local residents and veterans under the 10-year agreement approved unanimously by council members.

That requirement will apply to major public works contracts that exceed $750,000 and specialty contracts – for more singular work like toilet installations – that exceed $100,000.

But city staff at first proposed to apply it more narrowly, with higher contract thresholds of as much as $2.5 million, making it harder to apply local hiring standards.

That didn’t make the trade associations happy.

So their leaders turned out in force for public comments to City Council members at their June 6 meeting, where workers – many of whom identified as residents – urged an expansion of an agreement they said would ensure people wouldn’t have to drive hours, even out of state, for work. 

Staff’s initial proposal would “significantly” limit “the number of hours that we can work with local residents and veterans,” said Ernesto Medrano, a leader at the LA/OC Building Trades who spoke with his hands pressed on the podium to the hooting and hollering of workers behind him. 

“It’s kind of perplexing to us,” said Kenny Williams, the president of the OC Labor Federation who also spoke on behalf of the Communication Workers of America, which represents AT&T, Verizon and Frontier employees in OC.

Williams said the proposal by the building trades “will keep people working in Santa Ana.”

Some speakers recounted the amount of family dinners and children’s baseball games they’ve missed as a result of the distances they’re required to travel for work. 

Others called the Building Trades’ expanded proposal a crucial pipeline for residents to the middle class without college debt. 

“Santa Ana is a city renowned for progress, for supporting working class families, and the current proposal by staff disrespects that progress,” said Luis Aleman, speaking on behalf of the OC Labor Federation. 

Aleman said that if council members “agree with the city staff proposal” then “you are kneecapping the future workers and future homeowners of Santa Ana with that language.”

Even the local grocery worker union showed up to speak out. 

While Santa Ana has been “nothing short of heroic” when it comes to grocery clerk protections in recent years, said United Food and Commercial Workers political director Derek Smith, the city has a responsibility to be a countywide leader when it comes to “pushing the standards for working families.”

“Lowering the threshold from the staff recommendation does not simply result in more union jobs, but it results in better access for Santa Ana residents to have access to these union jobs,” Smith said.

Council members took the message loud and clear.

Mayor Valerie Amezcua, during the discussion, called attention to staff’s proposal that public works contracts of $2.5 million or higher trigger the community workforce agreement for “prime multi-trade construction contracts.”

“I’d like to change that to $750,000,” Amezcua said.

Staff also proposed a threshold of $1 million or higher for “specialty contracts” triggering the community workforce requirements. 

“I’d like to change to $100,000,” Amezcua added.

Council Member Phil Bacerra requested that the agreement apply to affordable housing projects with city funding. 

“Don’t we want those to be built with the same quality labor? Don’t we want the construction jobs involved with those projects that City money goes towards to also include our brothers and sisters in union labor?” Bacerra said. 

He also requested annual reports back to the council to account for inflation changes to construction costs.

Council Member Thai Viet Phan wanted to lower the contract period from 10 years to five, “because $750,000 in 2023 is very different I think from what $750,000 will be in 2028.”

Her request failed to gain enough support from her colleagues.

The city has over 50 active public works construction projects totaling more than $157 million in the works, with an additional $37 million in projects planned for the next fiscal year, according to city staff

Contractors working on projects covered by the agreement must find workers through the hiring halls of the 26 unions that have signed onto to the city’s contract with the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building & Construction Trades Council.

That includes unions like the Asbestos Heat & Frost Insulators Local 5, Boilermakers Local 92, Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Local 4, and more.

There was enthusiasm for the revised contract amounts across the dais.

“Some of you have to wake up at 4 a.m. to be at your site locations,” said Council Member Jessie Lopez before the vote, “and you work in some of the most dangerous conditions.”

“If it wasn’t for labor unions, I would not be a multi-generational Chicano,” said Council Member Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, who said the agreement “ensures that your children you’re raising today have a seat at the table 20 years from now.”

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.