CPUC?s Wood Plays Santa, not Scrooge, to Utility Workers

By Published On: December 19, 2004

At his final California Public Utilities Commission meeting December 16, Carl Wood handed utility workers an early Christmas present, ordering energy utilities to require their contractors to pay prevailing wages on all utility construction jobs. In addition, the use of Internet-based ?reverse auctions??which ensure that the lowest bids will be accepted?was prohibited. In a hearing room packed with utility workers wearing blue union caps and bright orange T-shirts proclaiming ?Workers? Rights Are Human Rights,? the California Public Utilities Commission by a 4-1 vote adopted Wood?s alternate order governing utility construction contracting procedures. The construction workers at the meeting came from all over the state and cheered and applauded with cries of ?Merry Christmas!? after the vote. The ruling will affect thousands of employees of gas and electric subcontractors across California, including some 6,000 workers in southern California, said Mario Brito, assistant director of Laborers? California Organizing Fund, a division of the Laborers? International Union. It was a fitting finale to Wood?s six-year tenure at the CPUC. Wood served as a top utility union official for years before Governor Gray Davis appointed him to the CPUC, where he consistently represented the interests of ratepayers and utility workers. Wood?s alternate order tempered a proposed decision supported by commissioner Loretta Lynch, which would have added that the CPUC?s preference was to have utilities utilize ?project labor agreements? (PLAs) for construction contracts exceeding $1 million. PLAs establish uniform employment terms and conditions for employees of utility construction contractors. ?This decision is to ensure that utility construction projects are in line with state and federal public works procurement practices,? Lynch said. ?My alternate is based on the principle that half a loaf is better than none,? Wood explained. ?It would apply only to large utilities and not to small companies and independent [gas] storage facilities.? Reverse auctions are regarded as particularly onerous by utility labor organizations because they solicit bids over the Internet. Anonymous bidders compete for contracts by lowering their bids until the lowest bid is accepted, thus ensuring lower wages as well. Four unions representing electrical workers, mechanical workers, and plumbers jointly filed comments urging the CPUC to restrict reverse auctions for utility subcontracting jobs. The CPUC investigated another practice, called ?bid shopping,? in which contractors solicit bids from subcontractors after already accepting bids. However, the CPUC determined that no large California utilities currently engage in that practice.

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