California calls for a hearing to challenge the DOL's actions.

Choosing to not make the changes to its labor law the Department of Labor (DOL) had requested concerning its use of a “needs” requirement for the development of apprenticeship programs, the California Department of Industrial Relations (CDIR) will instead request a hearing to challenge the DOL's move to derecognize the state's State Apprenticeship Agency (SAA). The DOL had given the CDIR until June 13 to remove from the California Labor Code a stipulation that an organization must demonstrate a need for an apprenticeship program in a given area. The state also had the options to request a hearing or do nothing.

The CDIR's request for a hearing is the latest step in a process that began almost a year and a half ago when the DOL first deemed the state's needs standard capable of restricting and limiting apprenticeship training opportunities in California. On May 10, after attempts to come to an agreement on amending the requirement failed, Anthony Swoope, administrator for the Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services (OATELS), sent a letter to CDIR Director Stephen Smith informing him that OATELS, on behalf of the DOL, had begun proceedings to derecognize the state's SAA.

Smith says he was surprised the DOL took such a hardline approach to the needs standard because in initial meetings between the two sides the department hadn't explicitly demanded its abolition. He says he left those meetings with the impression the DOL would agree to a modified needs standard. However, the letter sent out last month states that the standard must be eliminated altogether.

“We have a state law passed by legislature and signed by the governor that clearly says ‘needs standard,’ and then we have the federal government saying clearly that no needs standard is acceptable,” he says. “That's a fairly hard bridge to get over. Once it becomes that black and white, it doesn't loan itself to resolution.”

Making the situation that much more contentious is the assertion by some in California that the needs standard is prejudicial against open-shop programs. California is traditionally a pro-union state, and groups like the Western Electrical Contractors Association (WECA) believe the state legislature in general and Gov. Gray Davis in particular are trying to exclude non-union programs.

Frank Stephens, government affairs director of WECA, recently said he believes many of Gov. Davis' recent bills amend apprenticeship regulations to favor union programs. Aside from the apprenticeship issue, he says the state's decision to mandate prevailing wages on private work could have a detrimental impact on independent electricians and contractors.

Although he admits to being aware of such concerns, Swoope is quick to point out that the needs standard and the subsequent derecognition process aren't issues of unions vs. non-unions. Instead, he says, it's an issue of how to “make sure that we have quality apprenticeship, and promoting and expanding the system so we can provide opportunities because of the shortages that are there in the skilled trades.”

Despite the fact that Bob Baird is vice president of apprenticeship and training, codes, standards, and safety for the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), he won't apply an “us against them” label to the dispute either. “It's a situation where California is adopting regulations that are unduly restrictive to the expansion of apprenticeship programs in the state,” he says.

However, the IEC had contacted the DOL prior to the derecognition process, lobbying for a change to or elimination of the needs standard, and Baird admits that had the number of union apprenticeship programs in California not been far greater than open-shop programs, the IEC wouldn't have complained. “But on the other hand, I have to say that with any organization, you pursue the issues that are of most interest to your membership,” he says.

Regardless of who is running the training programs, numbers collected by the California Employment Development Department show that a need will most certainly exist over the next few years for as many apprenticeship programs as organizations are willing to start: The department projects a need for 45,160 electricians by 2005, an increase of 18%.

However, Smith says the CDIR has no plans to back down. “I would like to convince [the DOL] that some kind of reasonable needs standard can and should be in the law,” he says.