Anti-worker or pro-worker? Why California labor unions are fighting over a housing bill
A new bill aimed at increasing affordable housing construction has an important backer: California’s carpenters’ unions. The state’s formidable Construction and Building Trades Council, which represents most other construction unions, is opposed. The battle comes down to how stringent labor requirements under the new bill would be.
More than two dozen men and women clad in hard hats and safety vests filed into a crowded hearing room April 27 to cheer on yet another bill trying to solve California’s housing crisis.
The Affordable Housing and High Road Jobs Act would allow developers to fast-track local approval to build affordable housing where offices, strip malls and parking lots sit right now. But it has quickly become one of the most hotly contested bills in the California Legislature because the labor requirements on those projects satisfy some but not most unions. The bill, introduced by Assembly Housing Chair Buffy Wicks, mirrors multiple bills that died in recent years as a result of squabbling between developers and labor unions.
The men and women in hard hats, however, were carpenters, and so represented something previous bills didn’t have: Support from both developers and some construction unions.
But despite the neon flashes in a sea of suits, the impasse is far from over.
Following the carpenters, a parade of electricians, pipe-fitters, ironworkers and drywallers — wearing union logos but no hard hats — stepped up to the microphone to voice their disapproval. While the state’s Conference of Carpenters, which represents about 82,000 workers, co-sponsored the bill, the Building and Construction Trades Council — an umbrella labor group known colloquially as “the Trades” and spanning almost half a million workers in nearly every other construction industry — remains vehemently opposed. The California Labor Federation, which represents more than 1 million members including the Trades, said they “stand in strong solidarity” with the Trades.
After several years of gridlock, the rare split within the construction unions presents both an awkward conundrum and a potential for compromise on a proposal that would free up swaths of land for development of affordable housing. It certainly makes it harder to paint bill supporters as anti-labor — a phrase that amounts to slander for politicians in deep blue California.
“This bill claims to have labor standards that might as well be written in invisible ink because they will disappear before the first worker laces up their boots.”
Longtime Democratic strategist Garry South said lawmakers may have to calculate which facet of organized labor will cause them the most pain during a major election year. And the Trades, which contribute tens of millions of dollars in campaigns and engage in aggressive lobbying, remain a force to be reckoned with. According to a CalMatters analysis of the 2022 races so far, state and local Trades councils have contributed more than $1 million to political candidates while carpenters groups have given more than $800,000.
But as the housing crisis reaches a fever pitch among voters, South said “elected officials will ignore it at their own peril.”
That’s the motivating factor for the bill’s author.
“I don’t want to be the housing chair presiding over inertia and status quo,” said Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland. “Here’s the reality: I and 79 of my other colleagues in the Assembly every weekend go home to constituents who are homeless, constituents who have to live in people’s garages, constituents who are squeezed out of their house, who are living in motels, who are living in their cars, who are being evicted or experiencing foreclosure, or who are barely hanging on. That is simply not okay. And so what that means is building more low-income and middle-income housing. And that’s what this bill does.”
What does the labor language really say?
The bill, which has the support of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, would allow housing that is 100% affordable to low-income households to be built “by right” on areas now zoned for offices, retail and parking. That means skipping many city council meetings that tack on costly delays as well as the state’s premier environmental law many blame for its housing woes. Livable California, a local control group, has already dubbed it “the worst bill of 2022.”
The bill would also allow mixed-income housing, with a minimum of 15% of units affordable to low-income households for rent or 30% of units affordable to moderate-income households for sale, along commercial corridors such as strip malls.
The Carpenters and the Trades are at loggerheads over how much unionized labor developers would have to use to take advantage of the streamlining. The Trades are pushing for language requiring a certain amount of the workforce be graduates of an apprenticeship program, which effectively means union members. That’s common for public works, but unusual for residential construction.
A 2019 Trades-commissioned study found less than a fifth of construction workers across California were unionized in 2017, a number likely lower in the residential sector.
Developers argue the standard — that at least 30% or in some cases 60% of the workers in each trade for a given project be graduates of an apprenticeship program, most of which are run by unions — is too hard to meet, particularly in areas of the state lacking in apprenticeship programs. The Carpenters agree.
“If you had a standard that can’t be met when you need to move forward on construction then it’s not a standard, it’s a barrier,” said Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters.
Under Wicks’ bill, developers would have to pay union-level wages — which are common to builders of exclusively affordable housing, but rare among market rate developers. Projects larger than 50 units would require health benefits for workers and contractors would need to request the dispatch of apprentices, but if they’re unavailable, the project would move forward anyway.
The bill also gives unions new tools to go after developers over wage violations without waiting on state regulators, an enforcement mechanism the Carpenters have touted as the strongest in California.
But in a scathing letter, the Trades argued the benefits were largely unenforceable. They said developers could bypass the health care requirements, which could be overturned in court, and called the apprenticeship standard in the bill a simple paper exercise that wouldn’t result in more jobs — allegations Wicks’ office denies.
“This bill claims to have labor standards that might as well be written in invisible ink because they will disappear before the first worker laces up their boots,” Erin Lehane, legislative director for the Trades, said during the hearing.
They insist their stricter apprenticeship standards are needed because the lengthy local approval process Wicks’ bill would strip away normally gives unions leverage for pay and work rules. They argue only strict requirements to use state-approved apprenticeships would equip workers with the skills, training and fluency in labor law to offset the silenced community process.
“If this bill were to pass in its current form without any changes, I will guarantee you that my clients will put up the money to put it on the ballot to referendum it,” said Scott Wetch, a lobbyist who represents about 150,000 electrical workers, plumbers and sheet metal workers. “And, then we have the public discussion with the voters as to if they approve or disapprove of taking this authority away from the local city councils.”
Wetch requested that the bill be sent to the Rules Committee — a holding area of sorts where stakeholders can buy time and de-escalate rhetoric. Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, a Democrat from Los Angeles who leads the budget subcommittee on housing, said the move indicates some unions’ willingness to compromise.
Here’s something the unions all agree on: The labor workforce needs to grow to meet construction demands, and is struggling to do so. Pay and health coverage among the mostly non-union workforce is often so poor that nearly half of construction workers rely on the state’s five largest public safety net programs, according to a recent UC Berkeley Labor Center study.
Apprenticeship programs help remedy these issues by providing free education that leads to good-paying union jobs, but have only graduated about 70,500 apprentices since 2010, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations. The Trades believe strict apprenticeship requirements on the streamlined projects guarantee more jobs, which will grow the pool of applicants and in time, graduates. Still, they say they have enough workers to start building homes today.
“Why other labor unions aren’t jumping on this, I don’t know. For us, it’s crystal clear.”
The Carpenters contend too many workers are already subject to substandard work conditions and earning low wages, and many can’t prove they have the years of work experience equivalent to an apprenticeship graduate because they’re paid under the table.
“We know that this will kick the door open, raise the wages, raise the conditions, produce housing, a platform for new workers to come in. We train them, we organize them,” said Jay Bradshaw, executive officer of the Northern California Carpenters Union. “Why other labor unions aren’t jumping on this, I don’t know. For us, it’s crystal clear.”
Following the robust, if uncomfortable, testimony, the bill was referred to the Rules Committee on a 7 to 1 vote. Wicks said the bill will face similar deadlines to other Assembly bills — it will have to get out of the rules and appropriations committees and onto the floor by May 20.
“I’m hopeful,” Carrillo said. “I think clearly what we’re seeing is a desire to find solutions. People want to see solutions, they don’t want to see homeless encampments continue to grow.”
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