More than two dozen men and women dressed in hard hats and safety vests descended into a packed hearing room on April 27 to cheer on another bill trying to solve California’s housing crisis.
That Affordable Housing and High Road Jobs Act would allow developers to expedite local approval for construction of affordable housing where offices, shopping malls and parking lots are currently located. But it quickly became one of the most hotly contested bills in the California legislature because the labor requirements for these projects satisfy some, but not most, unions. The bill, introduced by Assembly Housing Chair Buffy Wicks, reflects several bills died in recent years as a result of disputes between developers and unions.
However, the men and women in hard hats were carpenters and therefore represented something previous bills did not: support from both developers and some building unions.
But despite the neon flashes in a sea of suits, the impasse is far from over.
After the carpenters, a parade of electricians, pipe fitters, iron and steel workers and drywall workers – wearing union logos but no hard hats – took to the microphone to voice their disapproval. While the state’s Carpenters’ Conference, which represents about 82,000 workers, co-sponsored the bill, the Building and Construction Trades Council — an umbrella working group colloquially known as “the trades” that includes nearly half a million workers in almost every other construction trade — remains vehemently opposed. The California Labor Federation, which represents more than 1 million members including the Trades, said it was “in strong solidarity” with the Trades.
After several years of stalemate, the rare split within construction unions poses both an uncomfortable conundrum and a potential for compromise on a proposal that would free up tracts of land for affordable housing development. It certainly makes it harder to portray the advocates of bills as anti-union — a phrase that’s tantamount to slander for politicians in deep blue California.
Longtime Democratic strategist Garry South said lawmakers may need to calculate which facet of organized labor will cause them the most pain in a big election year. And the trades, investing tens of millions of dollars in campaigns and aggressively lobbying, remain a force to be reckoned with. According to a CalMatters analysis of the 2022 races to date, state and local trade councils have donated more than $1 million to political candidates, while carpenter groups have donated more than $800,000.
But as the housing crisis peaks among voters, South said “elected officials will ignore it at their peril.”
This is the motivating factor for the drafter of the bill.
“I don’t want to be the apartment leader presiding over inertia and the status quo,” said Wicks, an Oakland Democrat. “Here’s the reality: I and 79 of my other colleagues in the congregation go home every weekend to voters who are homeless, voters who have to live in people’s garages, voters who are being pushed out of their homes, who are in motels live, who live in their cars, who are affected by evictions or foreclosures or are barely able to hold out. That’s just not okay. So that means building more low- and middle-income homes. And this bill does that.”
What does the working language really say?
The bill, backed by Speaker Anthony Rendon, would allow housing that is 100% affordable for low-income households to be built “by rights” on land now designated for offices, retail and parking. That means many City Council meetings, which are fraught with costly delays, as well as those of the state, have to be skipped First environmental law much to blame for his housing problems. Livable California, a local control group already overplayed it “The worst bill of 2022.”
The bill would also allow for mixed-income housing, with at least 15% of units affordable for low-income households for rent or 30% of units affordable for middle-income households for sale, along trade corridors such as shopping malls.
Carpenters and craftsmen argue about how much unionized labor developers would need to expend to benefit from the rationalization. The craft trades are pushing for a certain proportion of the workforce to be graduates of an apprenticeship programme, which effectively means union members. This is common in public works but unusual in residential construction.
A 2019 study commissioned by Trades found that less than a fifth of construction workers across California were unionized in 2017, a number that is likely lower in the living area.
Developers argue that the standard – that at least 30%, or in some cases 60% of workers in each trade for a given project, be graduates of a training programme, most of which are run by unions – is too difficult to meet, particularly in areas of the United States State lacks apprenticeship programs. The carpenters agree.
“If you have a standard that can’t be met when you need to move forward in building, that’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 is common among builders of affordable housing only, but rare among commercial developers. Projects with more than 50 units would require health benefits for workers and contractors would have to apply to send trainees, but if they are not available the project would still go ahead.
The law also gives unions new tools to crack down on wage violations without waiting for 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 circumvent the health requirements, which could be overturned in a court of law, and called the training standard in the bill a simple paper exercise that would not result in more jobs – allegations Wicks’ office denies.
“This law claims to have labor standards that might as well be written in invisible ink because they will disappear before the first worker laces his boots,” Erin Lehane, legislative director for the industry, said during the hearing.
They insist their tougher training standards are needed because the lengthy local approval process that would abolish Wick’s bill usually gives unions leverage over pay and labor rules. They argue that only strict requirements for using state-approved apprenticeships would equip workers with the skills, training and mastery of labor law to make up for the silenced community process.
“If this law were to pass as it stands with no changes, I guarantee my customers will put up the money to put it on the ballot to vote on it,” said Scott Wetch, a lobbyist representing about 150,000 electrical workers represents plumbers and plumbers. “And then we have the public discussion with voters whether they approve or oppose removing that authority from local councillors.”
Wetch called for the bill to be sent to the Rules Committee — a sort of waiting area where advocacy groups can buy time and de-escalate the rhetoric. Member of Parliament Wendy Carrillo, a Los Angeles Democrat who heads the housing budget subcommittee, said the move shows a willingness to compromise by some unions.
All trade unions agree on this: the labor force has to grow in order to cover the need for construction and is finding it difficult to do so. Payroll and health insurance for mostly non-union workers is often so poor that nearly half of construction workers rely on the state’s five largest public safety nets, according to a recent study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
Apprenticeship programs help address these problems by providing free education that leads to well-paying union jobs, but only about 70,500 apprentices have graduated since 2010, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations. Trades believe that strict training requirements for the streamlined projects will guarantee more jobs, increasing the pool of applicants and, over time, graduates. Despite this, they say they have enough workers to start building houses today.
The carpenters claim that too many workers already face substandard working conditions and earn low wages, and many cannot show they have the equivalent years of graduate work experience because they are paid under the table.
“We know this will throw open the door, raise wages, improve conditions, create housing and create a platform for new workers. We train them, we organize them,” said Jay Bradshaw, Executive Officer of Northern California Carpenters Union. “I don’t know why other unions don’t jump on it. For us it is crystal clear.”
After solid, if uncomfortable, testimony, the bill was referred to the Rules Committee by a 7-1 vote. Wicks said the bill has similar deadlines to other Assembly bills — it must be signed by April 20.
“I’m confident,” said Carrillo. “I think what we’re seeing is clearly a desire to find solutions. People want to see solutions, they don’t want homeless camps to keep growing.”