Building Trades score big fed court win on SB 54

Sept. 13, 2017 - In a major victory for the State Building Trades, two contractors that lodged a legal challenge to a state law that improves safety in California’s oil refineries have dropped their federal court case.

The decision by Unico Mechanical Corp. and Alfred Conhagen, Inc., means that when outside contractors are brought in to do work in refineries throughout the state, they must use a skilled and trained workforce to perform work in occupations for which California has approved apprenticeship programs.

Senate Bill 54 established the requirement in October 2013, after an Aug. 6, 2012, fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond exposed 19 workers to a hydrocarbon vapor cloud and forced 15,000 East Bay residents to seek medical attention. A governor’s task force that investigated the cause of the fire found that refineries’ use of contractors that employ untrained and unskilled construction workers to perform on-site maintenance work increases the risk of such incidents.  

Unico Mechanical and Alfred Conhagen filed a lawsuit against the state in May 2015, claiming that SB 54 is pre-empted by federal law and that the bill violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. 

Two California attorney generals, Xavier Becerra and Kamala Harris, defended the law, and the State Building and Construction Trades Council signed on as an intervenor. The SBCTC’s attorney, Scott Kronland, argued in his court papers that there was nothing in federal law to preempt the state statute. Furthermore, Kronland wrote, the “horrific” Chevron explosion demanded that California take action to ensure that refinery contractors employ only skilled journeymen and apprentices registered in state-approved programs.

“The Legislature found that there are significant ‘risk(s) to public health and safety’ when ‘unskilled and untrained workers’ perform work in refineries, and that these risks are ‘particularly high when workers are employed by outside contractors because they generally will be less familiar with the operations of the facility and its emergency plans and the owner or operator of the facility will have less incentive to invest in training,’” Kronland said in one of his court filings, which quoted the Legislature’s findings in adopting SB 54.

U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez in Sacramento threw the case out last December. Unico Mechanical and Alfred Conhagen appealed to the Ninth Circuit, but on Sept. 5 they voluntarily dismissed their appeal.

The dismissal of the case is consistent with a much greater level of cooperation that has since taken hold between the Building Trades and the refineries, according to SBCTC President Robbie Hunter.

“SB 54 is a basis of the partnership that has developed between us and the petroleum industry in California,” Hunter said “We built those refineries originally. They are good, blue collar jobs for the construction industry on a massive scale. The refiners and the Building Trades understand that if this industry is to prosper, and develop, in California, that it needs to be a partnership, and theBuilding Trades can provide the skilled and trained workforce necessary for the petroleum industry.”

Hunter added, “We’d like to thank our lawyer, Scott Kronland, for his work on this case, and we’d also like to express our deep gratitude to Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who devoted the full resources of his agency to defend this important state law.”

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