More than two dozen men and women in hard hats and safety vests walked into a crowded hearing room on April 27 to cheer about another bill trying to solve California’s housing crisis.
The Affordable Housing and Highway Jobs Act will allow developers to speed up local approval to build affordable housing where offices, malls and parking are currently located. But it quickly became one of the most controversial bills in the California legislature because job requirements on those projects satisfied some but not most unions. The bill, introduced by Buffy Weeks, president of the Housing Association, reflects several bills that have died in recent years as a result of a feud between developers and labor unions.
However, the men and women in the hard hats were carpenters, and thus represented something that had not been in previous bills: support from developers and some building unions.
But despite the neon flash in a sea of suits, the stalemate is far from over.
After the carpenters, a procession of electricians, pipe fitters, ironworkers, and drywall workers—wearing Union emblems but no hard hats—came to the microphone to express their disapproval. While the state’s Carpenters Conference, which represents about 82,000 workers, has co-sponsored the bill, the Building and Construction Trade Board—a comprehensive labor group colloquially known as “the professions” and includes nearly half a million workers in nearly every other construction industry – Still strongly opposed. The California Labor Union, which represents more than 1 million members including dealers, said they “stand in strong solidarity” with the professions.
After several years of stalemate, the rare split within the building unions presents an embarrassing dilemma and the potential for compromise on a proposal that would free up swathes of land for affordable housing development. It certainly makes it difficult to portray the bill’s supporters as anti-workers — a phrase that amounts to slandering politicians in the deep blue state of California.
Longtime Democratic strategist Gary South said lawmakers may have to calculate which aspect of organized action will cause them the most pain during a key election year. Commerce, which contributes tens of millions of dollars to campaigns and engages in aggressive lobbying, remains a force to be reckoned with. According to CalMatters’ analysis of the 2022 races to date, state and local trade boards have contributed more than $1 million to political candidates while carpenter groups have provided more than $800,000.
But with the housing crisis reaching its peak among voters, South said “elected officials will ignore it at their own peril”.
This is the motivating factor for the author of the bill.
“I don’t want to be the speaker presiding over the deadlock and the status quo,” said Weeks, an Auckland Democrat. “Here’s the truth: I and 79 other fellow assemblymates every weekend go home to homeless voters, voters who have to live in people’s garages, voters who have been evicted from their homes, who live in motels, and who if they They live in their cars, or who have been evicted or have been foreclosed on, or who are just barely holding on. That is simply not okay. So what that means is building more housing for low- and middle-income people. And that’s what this bill does.”
What does business language really say?
The bill, which has the support of Assembly President Anthony Rendon, would allow 100 percent affordable housing to be built for low-income families “by right” in areas now designated for offices, stores and parking. That means skipping the many city council meetings that address costly delays as well as the state’s first environmental law that many blame for housing problems. Livable California, a local watchdog group, has dubbed it the “Worst Bill of 2022.”
The bill would also allow mixed-income housing, with a minimum of 15% of units accessible for low-income families to rent or 30% of units affordable for middle-income families for sale, along commercial lanes such as strip malls.
There is disagreement among carpenters and merchants over how much unionized labor developers will have to use to take advantage of the simplification. Traders are pushing towards language that requires a certain amount of manpower to be an apprenticeship program graduate, which actually means union members. This is common for public works, but unusual for residential construction.
A 2019 study commissioned by Trades found that less than a fifth of construction workers across California joined unions in 2017, a number likely lower in the residential sector.
Developers argue that the standard—that at least 30% or in some cases 60% of workers in each occupation for a given project are graduates of an apprenticeship program, mostly run by unions—is difficult to meet, particularly in areas of the state that lack apprenticeship programs. Carpenters agree.
“If you have a standard that cannot be met when you need to move forward with construction, it’s not a standard, it’s a barrier,” said Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters.
Under the Wicks bill, developers will have to pay union wages — common for builders of exclusively affordable housing, but rare among market-rate developers. Projects larger than 50 units require worker health benefits and contractors will need to request that interns be sent, but if they are not available, the project will go ahead anyway.
The bill also gives unions new tools to prosecute developers over wage violations without waiting for state regulators, an enforcement mechanism that carpenters have described as the most powerful in California.
But in a scathing speech, workers argued that the benefits are largely unenforceable. They said developers could bypass health care requirements, which could be overturned in court, and called the apprenticeship standard in law a simple paper exercise that won’t lead to more jobs — allegations that Weeks’ office denies.
“This bill claims that labor standards may be written in invisible ink because it will disappear before the first worker has tied his shoes,” said Erin Lehane, Legislative Director of Traditions, during the hearing.
They insist that stricter training standards are necessary because the lengthy local approval process, Weeks Bill would normally strip unions from paying wages and labor rules. They argue that only strict requirements to use state-approved apprenticeships will provide workers with skills, training, and fluency in labor law to offset the silenced community process.
Said Scott Wich, a lobbyist representing about 150,000 electricians, plumbers and sheet metal workers. “And then we have a public discussion with the voters about whether or not they agree to take that power away from the local city councils.”
Witch asked that the bill be sent to the Rules Committee — a holding area of sorts where stakeholders could buy time and tone down the rhetoric. Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, a Los Angeles Democrat who leads the budget subcommittee on housing, said the move indicated some unions were willing to compromise.
This is something unions all agree on: the workforce must grow to meet construction demands, and struggle to do so. Coverage of wages and health coverage among the predominantly nonunion workforce is 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.
Apprenticeships help address these issues by providing free education that leads to well-paying union jobs, but have only graduated about 70,500 apprentices since 2010, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations. Traders believe that strict vocational training requirements in streamlined projects guarantee more jobs, which will grow the pool of applicants and in time, graduates. However, they say they have enough workers to start building homes today.
Carpenters assert that too many workers are already under substandard working conditions and underpaid, and many cannot prove years of work experience equivalent to a graduate apprenticeship because they get paid under the table.
“We know this will open the door, raise wages, raise conditions, produce housing, and a platform for new workers to enter. We train them, we organize them,” said Jay Bradshaw, a Northern California executive. Carpenters Union. “Why don’t other trade unions jump at this one, I don’t know. For us, it’s quite straightforward.”
After strong testimony, if uncomfortable, the bill was referred to the Rules Committee by a vote of 7 to 1. Weeks said the bill would face similar deadlines as other Assembly bills—it would have to move out of the rules committees and appropriations to the chamber by May 20.
“I’m an optimist,” Carrillo said. I think clearly that what we’re seeing is a desire to find solutions. People want to see solutions, they don’t want to see displacement camps continue to grow.”