The California High-Speed Rail Authority took steps Thursday to ensure that at least some jobs building the system will go to people who are most in need of work.
But some non-union contractors fear that the measure will become little more than a means for construction jobs to be monopolized by labor unions.
On a 5-0 vote in Sacramento, the authority adopted a community benefits policy that sets hiring goals for contractors for the first sections of the statewide rail project in the central San Joaquin Valley.
The policy will promote hiring people who live in communities with high unemployment or high levels of poverty, and disadvantaged workers including the homeless, high-school dropouts, veterans or the long-term unemployed.
"The building of high-speed rail allows us a tremendous opportunity to contribute to the economic viability of the Central Valley and address high unemployment and poverty in the area," said Robert Padilla, the authority's small-business advocate.
Padilla noted that Fresno and Bakersfield both rank among the top five big U.S. cities with the highest levels of poverty.
The policy will apply to building the route between Madera and Bakersfield -- a $6 billion project planned to start next year and continue through 2017.
At least 30 percent of all work hours must go to workers who live in "economically disadvantaged areas," and 10 percent of that work must be done by "disadvantaged workers." The rail authority will penalize contractors who fall short of the goals.
"The fact that the board is making sure there are adequate steps for compliance means this is not just window dressing," said Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board.
Konczal, representing the Fresno Works coalition of local government and businesses in Fresno County, has pressed the authority board for more than a year for a policy to require contractors to hire workers from areas that are suffering.
"If you have the single largest public infrastructure project in California's history come through the counties with the highest unemployment rates, there has to be a way that one can be used to address the other," Konczal said after Thursday's vote.
Konczal added that the policy does not guarantee that the targeted-hiring jobs will be only for Valley residents, because federal law bars geographic limits or quotas. "But it means they'll have the ability to compete for these jobs; they'll have a shot," he said.
Organizations representing non-union contractors worry that the new policy will ultimately become a requirement for prime contractors to sign project labor agreements with unions, limiting jobs only to union workers.
"We believe this project needs to be awarded under fair and open competition," Nicole Goehring of the Associated Builders of California told the authority's board before Thursday's vote.
Eric Christen of Grass Valley, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said he believes the policy is "just a euphemism for a project labor agreement, just a different name."
Five teams of contractors have been invited to bid on the first major contract for a stretch of the rail route between Madera and Fresno. How the new policy will translate into the contract has yet to be determined, said Jeffrey Morales, the authority's CEO.
Potentially complicating the issue is that each of the five would-be prime contracting teams has already signed project labor agreements with labor unions.
Morales said the existence of project labor agreements between the contractors and labor unions is independent of any action the agency takes. "The authority has three goals that we're trying to accomplish with this policy," he said. "We want to allow broader participation by small business; we want to provide training so we have a qualified work force that's able to participate in the project; and we want to create employment opportunities in the Central Valley."
The Valley sections are part of a statewide system intended to link San Francisco and Los Angeles, by way of the San Joaquin Valley, with operations beginning between Merced and the Los Angeles Basin in about 2022.