We've expressed our reservations about the high-speed rail project multiple times in the past 18 months. They include the cost, which has risen dramatically from what voters approved; the lack of a reasonable business plan for operation; and the largely unassessed potential to disrupt farming and other valley activities.
Now we see another dubious decision by the High-Speed Rail Authority: a hiring policy with a definition that would include preferences going to the unemployed who have "a criminal record or involvement with the criminal justice system."
The San Joaquin Valley, one of the most economically depressed areas of the state, surely needs jobs. The potential for job generation is one of the best arguments for the rail project, though not sufficient to overcome the many financial risks of the project.
But the Community Benefits Agreement, approved by the authority with almost no public review, lists ex-cons as one of the categories of disadvantaged workers who would be given preference in hiring. Felons who have served their debt to society should not be denied a chance to work on high-speed rail or any other government project. But the idea that they should be given preference above other equally qualified long-term unemployed is absurd.
It makes sense and falls in line with state and federal priorities to give preference to veterans. And the hiring should not discriminate against the homeless, single parents on government assistance or others who have struggled.
The real beneficiaries of the agreement are the state's building trades unions. Embedded in the agreement are provisions that make it more likely that union workers will be employed on the project almost exclusively.
Union apprentices, defined as those with fewer than 15 percent of the apprenticeship hours required to graduate to journey level, are expected to receive the bulk of any hiring slots that go to "disadvantaged workers." Another key provision in the agreement requires nonunion contractors who subcontract for work on high-speed rail to pay into the union retirement funds and health and benefit funds. Nonunion contractors have to pay regardless of the fact they may have their own company pension plan and despite the fact their workers may not be members of the union.
Given the size and complexity of the high-speed rail project, unions will capture a sizable share of the work. No one has disputed that. Indeed, the five international teams that were certified as qualified general contract bidders have all signed agreements with the state's building trades and crafts unions.
But the Community Benefits Agreement virtually ensures that smaller, nonunion contractors will have to pay union wages and benefits to get a piece of this public works pie or they will be excluded. This requirement very likely will result in subcontracting roles going to Bay Area firms rather than those here in the valley, giving us one more reason to be skeptical about high-speed rail.