A scathing labor dispute about the installation of solar panels at Nueva School’s new state-of-the-art campus at Bay Meadows is prompting the San Mateo City Council to look into whether it can ensure contracts are upheld.
The dispute centers on the general contractor’s hiring practices and if electricians or laborers should do the solar work — an industry with wide interpretation as to who can. And while city officials have taken an interest, it is not clear what, if anything, can be done.
Still, Councilman David Lim brought the matter to the council’s attention and instructed city staff to research the matter at a study session last week.
“We need to send a clear message to developers that if they’re going to enter into a project labor agreement with our unions, they better be damned sure to follow it,” Lim said.
However, as the city is not a party to the agreement, it may not have authority to enforce the PLA.
The private Nueva School is building its first high school at Bay Meadows, currently in Phase II of the former race track’s 83.5-acre redevelopment off Highway 101 north of Hillsdale Boulevard.
Construction of the environmentally-friendly 2.7-acre campus started in early 2013 and is slated to be mostly finished in time for school to start in the fall.
Prior to construction, the general contractor, Devcon Construction, entered into an agreement with unions to hire locally and iron out which tradesmen would be hired for specific jobs, according to multiple sources. However, the addition of solar panels came after the PLA was drafted and has spurred a dispute between a San Mateo electricians union, a solar energy subcontractor, Devcon and the city.
Terry Lee, associate head of Nueva School, said he could not comment on the dispute.
Lim said he spoke with a Devcon representative who said the solar portion of the project came up last minute and, in trying to have the project completed by August, admitted the company violated the PLA.
The proper procedure would have been to hold a meeting announcing the change to allow everyone an opportunity to bid for the job, according to multiple sources.
Devcon Controller Bret Sisney said the company followed the PLA and the unions could have requested a meeting once the solar component was added. Sisney said he didn’t know when solar panels were added to the project and the representative who informed Lim of the company’s violation did not return a request for comment.
Laborers or electricians
The fact that it’s solar installation further complicates the situation, as state agencies have determined solar panels can be installed by various tradesmen and laborers.
Luminalt Solar Energy Solutions was awarded the job and is using union laborers from San Mateo County and San Francisco, CEO Jeanine Cotter said. Luminalt was not aware of the dispute at the time it entered into the PLA and its work is being disrupted by other union representatives showing up at the job site and videotaping workers, Cotter said.
Representatives from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union 617, said the PLA was violated when Devcon hired Luminalt as they were never given an opportunity to discuss the job. IBEW also contends the laborers are getting paid lower wages and some are from outside of San Mateo County.
Underlying the dispute are two jurisdictional conflicts. The first is who should install solar — laborers or electricians — and the second is whether the union members live in San Francisco or San Mateo County.
As a new technology, there isn’t an industry standard as to who should be awarded solar installation work, Cotter said.
“A variety of unions claim solar. There is no solar installer union, we’re a relatively young industry. ... So we are in the middle of a jurisdictional dispute between the IBEW and the laborers about who owns solar work,” Cotter said. “There is great work that’s being done out there and it’s being overshadowed and it’s really sad.”
Cotter said she’s passionate about the environment and hiring people of diverse backgrounds. Being able to use qualified laborers who charge less than electricians allows more companies to go solar but, in light of the controversy, Luminalt hired an IBEW single contractor to help smooth things over, Cotter said.
IBEW Business Manager Mark Leach said the very nature of solar panels is to create electricity and should therefore be electricians’ work. However, this case isn’t about what type of tradesmen were awarded the job, it’s about the process and hiring San Mateo County residents, Leach said.
“The community of San Mateo works really hard at turning an old race track into an economic engine for the county and the city and a lot of promises were made,” Leach said. “They’re not following the PLA and the whole idea was to create the best possible environment to create jobs.”
Councilman Jack Matthews said although the city couldn’t require a PLA, part of the motivating factor for approving Bay Meadows was the idea that it would provide jobs locally.
David De La Tore, a business agent for Laborers Local 261, is working for Luminalt and said most of the 12 union laborers are from the county.
Everyone is working to allay the issues to ensure the work is completed by the time the school is ready to open, De La Tore said.
“Solar is really touchy because it’s an open market and people are jockeying for positions,” De La Tore said. “But someone dropped the ball, and it usually falls on the general contractor.”
Lim said even if there’s nothing the city can legally do, he wants to create a resolution expressing disappointment with Devcon for not honoring the PLA throughout the entire project.
“I would like to us to take a strong stance in enforcing project labor agreements, even when we’re not a party to them,” Lim said. “Because over the years, the council has taken a strong stance in supporting local labor groups to get jobs in our city. Because number one, we think it’s good for the community and it’s good for the project.”
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