by Manuela Tobias , CalMaters
More than two dozen men and women wearing hard hats and safety vests filed in a crowded hearing room on April 27 to cheer on another bill trying to solve California’s housing crisis.
The Affordable Housing and High Road Jobs Act will allow developers to fast-track local approvals to build affordable housing where offices, strip malls and parking lots are sitting right now. But it has quickly become one of the most controversial 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, reflects several bills that have died out in recent years as a result of wrangling between developers and labor unions.
The men and women in hard hats, however, were carpenters, and therefore did not represent some of the previous bills: support from both developers and some construction unions.
But despite the neon glowing in a sea of suits, the standoff isn’t over.
After the carpenters, a parade of electricians, pipe-fitters, ironworkers and drywallers – wearing union logos but no hard hats – reached for microphones to voice their disapproval.
While the state’s Carpenters Conference, which represents about 82,000 workers, co-sponsors the bill, the Building and Construction Trades Council – an umbrella labor group known colloquially as “The Trades” and approximately Every second spans about half a million workers in the construction industry. – Strongly opposes.
The California Labor Federation, which represents more than 1 million members, including trades, said they “stand in strong solidarity” with the trades.
After several years of impasse, the rare division within construction unions presents both a strange puzzle and the potential for compromise on a proposal that would free up land for development of affordable housing. It certainly makes it harder to characterize bill supporters as anti-Labor – a phrase that equates to slander for politicians in deep blue California.
Longtime Democratic strategist Gary South said lawmakers may have to calculate which aspect of organized labor will hurt them the most during a major election year. And trades, which contribute tens of millions of dollars to campaigns and engage in aggressive lobbying, should be considered.
So far, state and local trade councils have contributed more than $1 million to political candidates, while carpenter groups have contributed more than $800,000, according to CalMatters analysis of the 2022 race.
But as the housing crisis reaches a fever pitch among voters, the South said “election officials will ignore it at their own peril.”
This is the driving factor for the author of the bill.
“I don’t want to be the housing chair presiding over inertia and the status quo,” said Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland. “Here’s the reality: Me and my 79 other colleagues in the Assembly go to the homes of constituents who are homeless, components that have to live in people’s garages, components that move out of their homes, components that go to motels. who are living in their cars, who are being evicted or facing foreclosure, or who are just hanging out. It’s just not okay. And so that means more low-income And building middle-income housing. And that’s what this bill does.”
What does the labor language actually say?
The bill, which is backed by Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon, would allow housing that is 100% affordable for low-income households, which could now be built “on the right” in areas for offices, retail and parking. That means skipping many city council meetings, which, along with costly delays, have to deal with the state’s premier environmental law responsible for its housing woes. Liveable California, a local control group, has already dubbed it the “worst bill of 2022”.
The bill would also allow mixed-income housing, with at least 15% of units for rent affordable to low-income households or 30% of units for sale affordable to middle-income households, as well as strip malls such as Along commercial corridors.
Carpenters and trades are at odds over how much unionized labor developers will have to use to take advantage of the streamlining. Trades are emphasizing language that requires a certain amount of workforce to be graduates of an apprenticeship program, which is effectively union members. This is common for public works, but unusual for residential construction.
A 2019 Trades-Commissions study found that less than a fifth of construction workers across California were unionized in 2017, a number likely to be lower in the residential sector.
Developers argue the standard – that at least 30% or in some cases 60% of employees in each trade for a given project graduates from an apprenticeship program, most of which is run by unions – especially in sectors Very difficult to meet. The state lacks apprenticeship programs. Carpenter agrees.
“If you had a standard that can’t be met when you need to move forward on construction that’s not a standard, it’s a hindrance,” said Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters.
Under the Wix bill, developers must pay union-level wages – which is especially common for builders of affordable housing, but a market rate rare among developers. Projects larger than 50 units will require convalescence for workers and contractors will be required to request the dispatch of apprentices, but if they are unavailable, the project will proceed anyway.
The bill also gives unions new tools to go after developers on pay violations without having to wait for state regulators, an enforcement mechanism that Carpenter has described as the strongest in California.
But in a scathing letter, Trades argued that the gains were largely unenforceable. He said developers could circumvent health care requirements, which could be overturned in court, and called the apprenticeship standard a simple paper exercise in the bill that would not result in more jobs — charges Wix’s office denies. Huh.
“This bill claims labor standards that can even be written in invisible ink because they will disappear before the first worker takes off their shoes,” Erin Lehn, the trade’s legislative director, said during the hearing.
They insist their stricter apprenticeship standards are needed because of the lengthy local approval process Wix’s bill would fall apart, for pay and work rules in general benefit unions. They argue that only strict requirements to access state-approved apprenticeships will equip workers with the skills, training and fluency in labor law to offset the tacit community process.
“If this bill is passed in its current form without any changes, I can guarantee you that my clients will put money to put it on the ballot for the referendum,” said Scott Waitch, a lobbyist who earns about 150,000 dollars. Electrical workers represent plumbers and sheet metal workers. “And, then we have a public discussion with voters about whether they approve or reject this right to take away from local city councils.”
Wetch requested that the bill be referred to the Rules Committee – a sort of holding area where stakeholders can buy time and reduce rhetoric. House Democrat Wendy Carrillo, who leads the budget subcommittee on housing, said the move indicates some unions’ willingness to compromise.
Here’s something all unions agree on: The labor workforce needs to grow to meet the demands of construction, and is struggling to do so. According to a recent UC Berkeley Labor Center study, pay and health coverage among most non-federal workers is often so poor that nearly half of construction workers rely on the state’s five largest public safety net programs.
According to the California Department of Industrial Relations, apprenticeship programs help address these issues by providing free education, which leads to well-paying union jobs, but has graduated only 70,500 apprentices since 2010. Trades believes that strict apprenticeship requirements on streamlined projects guarantee more jobs, which will increase the pool of applicants and graduates over time. Still, they say they have enough workers to build the house today.
Carpenter argues that many workers are already subject to substandard working conditions and earning low wages, and many cannot prove they have the work experience equivalent to an apprentice graduate because they are paid under the table. is done.
“We know it will open the door, raise wages, raise terms, produce housing, set a stage for new workers,” said Jay Bradshaw, Northern California executive. We train them, we organize them. Carpenters Association. “Why other labor unions are not jumping on this, I don’t know. To us, it’s quite clear.”
After strong, if uneasy, testimony, the bill was referred to the Rules Committee by a 7 to 1 vote. Wicks said the bill would face the same deadline as other Assembly bills – it would have to exit the rules and appropriations committees and come on the floor by May 20.
“I’m hopeful,” said Carrillo. “I think clearly what we’re seeing is a desire to find solutions. People want to see solutions, they don’t want the homeless camp to continue to grow.”