If you watched a lot of The People’s Court in the 1980s, you may recall a recurring scenario. If a litigant was asked for his receipts, and they didn’t say what he thought they said (or if he didn’t have them), then Judge Wapner would immediately head into recess.

And that litigant would lose. Guaranteed.

This happened enough that comedian Franklyn Ajaye made it into a punchline during his People’s Court routine. In that bit, the litigant didn’t bring his receipts. He didn’t get back his $80.

Here in San Francisco in the present day, we’re in the midst of a dispute involving a great deal more than $80, and with massive tangible and political consequences to bear. But, at the base of it, much comes back to the receipts.

To wit, over the past several weeks, the city’s organized labor leaders and the mayor’s office have been engaged in intense negotiations. A counter-intuitive scenario has been unfolding: To date, the biggest obstacle in the way of the $600 million affordable housing bond proposed this month by Mayor London Breed and Board President Norman Yee has been organized labor — specifically, the building trades who’d be building this housing and the beneficiaries of more than half a billion dollars worth of work.

Yes, it is that jarring: Organized labor has been the biggest critic of a bond that would project a blown fire hydrant of money and work toward organized labor.

The particulars of this argument are actually far less notable than the head-smacking reality that this argument is happening — and that the fate of a $600 million affordable housing bond (of which the city could use a bit) hangs in the balance.

But here’s the nitty gritty: Organized labor believes this forthcoming cavalcade of construction should be covered under a recently passed city law that requires much large-scale work in San Francisco to be subject to a “project labor agreement” before shovels hit the ground. And City Hall — a rather large swath of the folks working in City Hall — says that law doesn’t apply to this forthcoming massive bond.

Quite a predicament. What do the receipts say?

Always check the receipts.

Well, it seems to be pretty clear: The work to be undertaken via the potential forthcoming $600 million bond would not come under this year’s “project labor agreement” law. That’s the conclusion many of our elected and appointed officials have reached after reading the definition of “covered project” on page five of the actual law in question. And, crucially, the City Attorney’s office feels this way, too.

I don’t think there’s any ambiguity in the ordinance that should have caused that confusion,” states Deputy City Attorney Jon Givner in a May 14 letter sent to a minyan’s worth of mayoral and board officials.

This may be clear-cut in the eyes of city politicians and our city attorney. But this situation is far from clear-cut. There’s still plenty to talk about here.

Because for that $600 million bond to come to pass, six supervisors must first agree to put it on the ballot. And, if that comes to pass, two-thirds of the voters must vote for it.   

And all of that will be hard to do if organized labor decides to make it hard to do.

“We’ll see what happens if they hand us a shit sandwich,” says one labor leader, who is hoping city officials will proffer a better manner of sandwich labor’s way.

“Last time I checked, power respects power.”

A project rises in the Mission.

Having spoken to a goodly number of city leaders and labor officials, there seems to be genuine surprise all around. Labor officials are surprised the forthcoming bond wouldn’t be covered by this year’s new law, and city leaders are surprised that they’re surprised.

As noted earlier, the particulars of this argument are less noteworthy than the reality that there’s an argument, and it will have consequences. But here goes.

A “project labor agreement” is a multi-craft collective bargaining agreement that essentially sets the terms for a forthcoming development. It specifies what workers will do what jobs and for what rate, and how much will be paid into benefit and pension funds.

Unlike mere “prevailing wage” requirements, which put the onus on wronged workers to complain and build a case against devious contractors or subcontractors, project labor agreements are much more heavily and proactively monitored. Stiffing a worker or misclassifying her — having a laborer do electrician work, but at labor pay — becomes much harder to do. Even if non-union workers are brought into the job, they will be compensated at the union rate, with contributions to the benefit and pension funds.

And yet in San Francisco, unlike other major cities, we really don’t use non-union labor on public projects. Numbers produced by the mayor’s office note that, under the last city affordable housing bond, 99.8 percent of labor was undertaken by unionized workers. As such, city officials complain project labor agreements are duplicative, and shunt money and resources away from affordable housing construction and into onerous paperwork.

Be that as it may, all 11 supervisors did approve this year’s new law, and Mayor Breed signed it into being. But that law covers projects “involving Public Work or Improvement.” Bond-funded housing to be owned and operated by non-profits are neither of those.

So, Judge Wapner rules against labor.

Or does he?

“Labor can be a bit trusting, but they’re not stupid. And they know when they have leverage,” sums up a longtime city politico. “We have not seen a major bond passed without labor support.”

Photo by Lola M. Chavez

There are, in fact, reasons for organized labor to desire project labor agreements that you wouldn’t find in the Wikipedia entry for “project labor agreement.”

Such a situation would confer labor with far more influence in the scope of a project. Labor could provide itself with a buttress against other organizations lining up to sup from a $600 million gravy train. And it could, potentially, work to craft the agreement in such a way as to exclude prefabricated housing — which is cheaper than conventional means and undercuts local union labor.

Labor leaders I spoke to felt they were, once again, being scapegoated: Construction costs are an easy populist target, but nobody is, say, proposing on saving money by hiring cheaper architects or thriftier land-use attorneys. Even if the forthcoming work isn’t legally covered under a project-labor agreement, they feel it could be and it should be — and that the city is disrespecting and nickel-and-diming them.

Perhaps more to the point: Labor solidarity in San Francisco right now is as good as it has been in years. This is the time to make a stand — and, conversely, to acquiesce here without a struggle, regardless of what the law says or does not say, would constitute a loss of face.

So that opens up a realm of political possibilities. Labor-friendly supervisors could be leaned on to intervene or withhold placing this item on the ballot — though that seems a tad far-fetched. More likely, labor could oppose or simply not support this bond. “If you think they can pass this measure with 67 percent and not run a perfect campaign,” notes one veteran labor leader, “I think you’ve got another thing coming.”

Rancor over this issue could spill into other areas, such as the District 5 supervisorial contest. Under the pretext of labor discontent, various supervisors could hold the housing bond hostage until their demands on unrelated measures are met. So many possibilities.

“We’re all in this together,” says one city official, “and hopefully calmer heads prevail.”

We’ll see. It’ll all be in the receipts.