By Manuela Tobias | CalMatters
More than two dozen men and women wearing hard hats and safety vests entered a packed courtroom on April 27 to cheer on another bill trying to solve California’s housing crisis.
The Affordable Housing and Highway Jobs Act would allow developers to expedite local approval to build affordable housing where offices, shopping malls and parking lots are located right now. But it has quickly become one of the most hotly contested bills in the California Legislature because the labor requirements in those bills satisfy some but not most unions. The bill, introduced by Assembly Housing Speaker Buffy Wicks, mirrors multiple bills that died in recent years as a result of disputes between developers and unions.
However, the men and women in hard hats were carpenters, so they represented something previous bills lacked: support from both developers and some construction unions.
But despite flashes of neon in a sea of suits, the impasse is far from over.
After the carpenters, a parade of electricians, pipefitters, blacksmiths and bricklayers, wearing union logos but no hard hats, stepped up to the microphone to voice their disapproval.
While the state’s Conference of Carpenters, representing some 82,000 workers, co-sponsored the bill, the Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella labor group known colloquially as “the Trades” and encompassing nearly half a million of workers in almost all other construction industries. — is vehemently opposed.
The California Federation of Labor, which represents more than 1 million members, including the Trades, said they “stand strongly” with the Trades.
After several years of gridlock, the rare split within the construction unions presents both an uncomfortable conundrum and potential for compromise over a proposal that would free up swaths of land for affordable housing development. It certainly makes it harder to paint supporters of the bill as anti-labor, a phrase that amounts to smearing politicians in deep blue California.
Veteran 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, who put up tens of millions of dollars in campaigns and aggressive lobbying, remain a force to be reckoned with.
According to a CalMatters analysis of the 2022 races so far, state and local business councils have contributed more than $1 million to political candidates, while carpenters’ groups have donated more than $800,000.
But as the housing crisis reaches a fever pitch among voters, South said “elected officials will ignore it at their peril.”
That is the motivating factor for the author of the bill.
“I don’t want to be the housing president who presides over inertia and the status quo,” said Wicks, an Oakland Democrat. “Here’s the reality: Me 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 forced out of their house, living in motels, living in their cars, being evicted or experiencing foreclosure, or barely getting by. That just isn’t right. So what that means is building more low- and middle-income housing. And that’s what this bill does.”
What does the labor language really say?
The bill, which is supported by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, would allow 100% affordable housing to be built for low-income households “by right” in areas now zoned for offices, retail and parking . That means skipping many city council meetings that add up to costly delays, as well as the state’s main environmental law, which many blame for their housing problems. Livable California, a local watchdog group, has already called it “the worst bill of 2022.”
The bill would also allow mixed-income housing, with a minimum of 15% affordable units for low-income households for rent or 30% affordable units for moderate-income households for sale, along commercial corridors such as strip malls. .
Carpenters and trades disagree on how much unionized labor developers would have to use to take advantage of simplification. The trades are pushing for language that requires a certain amount of the workforce to graduate from an apprenticeship program, which actually means union membership. That’s common for public works, but unusual for residential construction.
A 2019 Trades-commissioned study found that less than a fifth of construction workers in California were unionized in 2017, a number likely lower in the residential sector.
The developers argue that the standard (that at least 30% or, in some cases, 60% of workers in each trade for a given project graduate from an apprenticeship program, most of which are run by unions ) is too difficult to meet, particularly in areas of the state that lack apprenticeship programs. The carpenters agree.
“If you had a standard that can’t be met when you need to move construction forward, then it’s not a standard, it’s a barrier,” said Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters.
Under the Wicks bill, developers would have to pay union-level wages, which are common for builders of exclusively affordable homes but rare among market-rate developers. Projects larger than 50 units would require health benefits for workers and contractors would have to apply to send apprentices, but if they are not available, the project will go ahead anyway.
The bill also gives unions new tools to go after developers for 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 that the benefits were largely inapplicable. They said the developers could skirt health care requirements, which could be struck down in court, and called the apprenticeship standard in the bill a simple paper exercise that would not create 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 be gone before the first worker laces up their boots,” Erin Lehane, Legislative Director of Trades, said during the hearing.
They insist tougher apprenticeship standards are needed because the lengthy local approval process that Wicks’ bill would eliminate typically gives unions leverage over pay and job rules. They argue that only strict requirements to use state-approved apprenticeships would equip workers with the skills, training, and labor law fluency to make up for the muted community process.
“If this bill were to pass in its current form without any changes, I guarantee my clients will put up the money to put it on the referendum ballot,” said Scott Wetch, a lobbyist who represents about 150,000 electrical workers. , plumbers and boilermakers. “And then we have the public discussion with voters about whether they approve or disapprove of taking this authority away from local city councils.”
Wetch requested that the bill be sent to the Rules Committee, a kind of holding area where interested parties can buy time and cut down on rhetoric. Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the budget subcommittee on housing, said the move indicates a willingness by some unions to compromise.
Here’s one thing all unions agree on: The workforce needs to grow to meet construction demands, and is fighting to do so. Pay and health coverage among the largely non-union workforce is often so low that nearly half of construction workers rely on the state’s five largest public safety net programs, according to a recent study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
Apprenticeship programs help remedy these problems by providing free education that leads to high-paying union jobs, but only about 70,500 apprentices have graduated since 2010, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations. The Trades believes that the strict learning requirements in streamlined projects ensure more jobs, which will grow the pool of applicants and, over time, graduates. Still, they say they have enough workers to start building houses today.
Carpenters contend that too many workers are already subject to poor working conditions and earn low wages, and many cannot prove they have years of work experience equivalent to a graduate apprentice because they are paid under the table.
“We know this will kick the door open, raise wages, improve conditions, produce housing, a platform for new workers to come on. We train them, we organize them,” said Jay Bradshaw, executive director of the Northern California Union of Carpenters. “Why other unions aren’t jumping on this, I don’t know. For us, it’s very clear.”
Following strong, if uncomfortable, testimony, the bill was referred to the Rules Committee by a 7-1 vote. Wicks said the bill will face similar deadlines as other Assembly bills: It will have to come out of the rules and appropriations committees and be in plenary by May 20.
“I’m hopeful,” Carrillo said. “I think clearly what we are seeing is a desire to find solutions. People want to see solutions, they don’t want to see homeless encampments continue to grow.”