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Bay Area labor schism boils over as unions spar over state housing bill

The NorCal Carpenters Union attends the Affordable Homes Now Rally in San Francisco’s Tenderloin on June 16, 2022. | Eloïse Kelsey for The Standard

Two of the Bay Area’s most powerful construction-worker unions are at bitter odds amid a push to extend state housing mandates. One side is branded as sellouts; the other is accused of pulling up the ladder.

Mirroring disagreements at the state level, the local labor fight centers on a new housing bill and spilled out into the open this week as labor leaders took swings on Twitter over language in the bill related to work requirements.  

Last week, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill 423, legislation that would make permanent SB 35, which requires an expedited process for housing projects in counties that fail to meet production quotas. It’s supported by the Housing Action Coalition and other pro-housing supply groups.

The bill is also backed by the Nor Cal Carpenters Union, a regional body representing 22 individual unions and over 36,000 members—many of whom surrounded Wiener at a Feb. 13 presser announcing the bill.

But among those who offered a Bronx Cheer for the bill was Wiener’s former colleague and fellow Democrat, Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher.

The former San Diego assemblymember, now a leader at the California Labor Federation, threw shade on Wiener and co-sponsor Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) accusing them of “redlining” labor standards out of the bill. 

Nor Cal Carpenters Union organizer Mitchell Vinciguerra shot back at Gonzalez-Fletcher, along with Wiener himself, who only a week earlier had touted his legislative report card from the labor federation. Another influential labor group, the California Building Trades Council, piled on to the scrum.

The Twitter skirmish is one front of an ongoing rift between construction-worker unions over state housing policy. It’s a battle over not just housing policy, but differing interests and visions over which generation of workers should be represented first.

Political Alliances

That rift manifests itself in political alliances over housing development.

The Nor Cal Carpenters’ Union recently joined the Bay Area Council—a business-heavy group that has driven regional governance and development for almost 80 years. The carpenters are the group’s only labor-based member.

“The council and the carpenters both want to see a lot more housing in the Bay Area,” said Rufus Jeffris, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Council. “We’re excited they’re at the table on housing issues.”

Jay Bradshaw, executive secretary-treasurer for the carpenters, likewise called it a “natural fit.”

Jay Bradshaw, the director of organizing for the Nor Cal Carpenters Union | Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“We are both fighting for new and affordable housing to ensure California continues to provide good jobs, smart infrastructure and remain a competitive world-class economy,” Bradshaw said.

It’s the latest turn in a political split that’s been simmering since at least last year, when the carpenters and the California Building Trades Council took opposing positions over Propositions D and E, two competing ballot measures that both failed.

Both measures promised to boost production of affordable housing, but differed in the fine print. 

Prop. E had more requirements that benefited the California Building Trades Council, such as specifying what wages would be paid and who would be able to get jobs working on certain projects. The Building Trades and its member unions plowed more than $300,000 into Prop. E’s campaign.

Skilled and Trained

If there’s one phrase that embodies the sticking point between the two union groups on housing policy—whether at the state or local level—it’s “skilled and trained.”

“Skilled and trained”—which generally means workers who undergo apprenticeship programs organized by the the California Building Trades Council—is the operative phrase that can determine who gets what jobs in construction projects.

“Non-union apprenticeship programs utilize apprentices much differently than we do. Their graduation percentages lag ours significantly,” said State Building and Construction Trades Council President Andrew Meredith in a statement. “Bills like SB 423 or AB 2011 play to the model of not actually graduating apprentices, instead utilizing them primarily as lower wage workers who are less likely to reach journey-person status in their respective trade.”

Meanwhile, the carpenters have signed on to policies with less stringent labor stipulations. While the group advocates for prevailing wages and other worker benefits, its larger objective on housing is to increase the number of union workers on projects. That requires more projects. 

“We believe ‘a rising tide raises all ships,'” Bradshaw said. “We are fighting for, and winning, battles to create new union jobs as well as raise up nonunion workers by ensuring prevailing wages, health care benefits and safe workplaces.”

Wiener, who has authored legislation with skilled workforce requirements in the past, also pointed to the bigger picture.

“We also have to look at the residential construction workforce. Ninety percent of them are not unionized,” Wiener said. “My hope is at some point they’ll all be unionized and this debate will be moot. As we support efforts to organize; let’s make sure both union and nonunion workers are being paid for their value. That’s what this language does.”