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Labor is Not a Monolithic Movement, Part the Million


While we’d all like to think that unions exist to promote “the workers” or socialism or the revolution or whatever we want, the reality is that they exist to promote the interests of their own members. And while we’d also like to think that the interest of workers are always the same, that’s not the case. Therefore, you get cases like you are seeing in the California housing bill, where unions are deeply divided.

One cause of California’s severe shortage of housing is well known: The state is plagued by byzantine zoning rules and other local restrictions on development that make it extraordinarily difficult to build new places to live. In other words, NIMBYism.

But there is another under-the-radar reason for my home state’s slow pace of new home building: We don’t have nearly enough construction workers. Experts estimate that developers in California need to recruit between 100,000 and 200,000 new workers in order to meet the state’s housing goals. Construction work of all kinds is physically demanding and economically volatile. But building houses in California is low-paying, dangerous and often exploitative — payroll fraud, wage theft and the abuse of undocumented workers have been found in the residential construction industry there.

All of which is why I’m so excited about A.B. 2011, a bill moving through the California Legislature that aims to create millions of new homes — including hundreds of thousands of homes set aside for low-income Californians — by addressing both zoning restrictions and poor working conditions in residential construction.


A.B. 2011, which was written by Buffy Wicks, an Assembly member from Oakland, passed the State Assembly in May and now needs approval in the State Senate. But its passage there faces a tough challenge. The bill has split one of California’s most powerful political forces: organized labor. While A.B. 2011 is backed by the California Conference of Carpenters and some of California’s large service-sector unions — including those representing health care workers, teachers and public employees — many unions in the construction industry are opposed to the bill. The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, an organization composed of unions for a range of construction jobs — boilermakers, bricklayers, painters, plasterers, roofers and others — says the standards don’t go far enough. The trades council wants to require that a certain number of jobs created by the bill be set aside for graduates of apprenticeship programs, most of whom are union members. Because it doesn’t, the council has called A.B. 2011 an effort to “exploit a very real crisis on the backs of California’s blue collar work force.” Erin Lehane, the legislative director of the trades council, told me the bill is a threat to workers’ safety and a giveaway to developers.

To which I say: This is why we can’t have nice things. The politics around housing in California are shifting rapidly. Not long ago, NIMBYs were indomitable. But as the housing crisis worsened and voters began demanding action, YIMBYs — activists who’ve pushed for more building under the banner of “yes, in my backyard!” — began to rack up many big wins. Yet when one myopic interest group falls in California, there is always another ready to step in and halt progress.Now the construction unions are playing spoiler, and, like the NIMBYs before them, their opposition is both self-serving and shortsighted. It is true that A.B. 2011 would not require developers to hire workers who’ve finished apprenticeship programs — but as several experts told me, there are not enough such workers in California to address such a need anyway. Worse, as CalMatters recently found, the shortage of union workers is most acute in rural and low-income areas of the state, where lots of new housing is needed.

I don’t think this is quite fair–we can’t have nice things because people have legitimate disagreements and weren’t always consulted about them. But there’s a lot going on here. First, it’s notable that the Carpenters are splitting with the rest of the trades on this and working with SEIU and other public sector unions to support the bill. That’s quite significant. Second, the lack of workign with the trades is true enough. Third, the trades are often very hard to work with. So there’s that and this falls on them. Fourth, the trades have almost no footprint in the housing market because they basically don’t organize new workers. The model they have simply doesn’t work that way. So they focus on government projects. What the trades are doing here is in part trying to take a shortcut around spending time and resources on organizing by trying to force their apprenticeship program through the bill. Fifth, the reality is that California really does need a lot of housing very fast and can’t wait for the years it takes to run that many people through the programs.

So there’s clearly a lot of complexities here. But the labor movement is divided because it consists of many unions that are all different, have different members, different politics, different legislative goals, and different leadership styles. It’s just how it is and we have to work with what we have, not what our fantasy version of the labor movement might be.

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