California remains mired in debate over how best to get more housing built in a way that improves the lives of residential construction workers. The debate has drawn many parties into the fray, from developers and housing advocates to labor unions and elected officials, oftentimes pitting frequent allies against one another. The State Building Trades has been no exception, left at times on an island with our affiliates to defend reasonable pathways to the middle class for workers in a sector rife with wage, hour, and safety violations.
To say California is in crisis mode as it relates to affordable housing would be an understatement, with more and more Californians unable to find access to housing each and every year. The crisis is, at least in some part, of California’s own making. Land values are extremely high in metropolitan cores, and the state and local communities have done little to offset those costs. Without help, projects in California’s major cities have struggled to get out of the ground.
The workforce building housing in California is admittedly undersized, which has also contributed to the problem. Turnover of those workers is always high due to the low wages and extreme volatility of the housing space. Developers created that environment, embracing for decades a model of breaking down the workforce to benefit themselves and their profit margins. They did homebuyers and tenants a disservice, too, allowing quality-control measures to go by the wayside while dramatically driving up their own profit margins.
When California lawmakers started looking for solutions over the last decade, developers and their corporate allies pitched what they claimed would work to get more housing built. Their recommendation was to eliminate local authority over building permits and project approvals for residential projects, claiming this would immediately have an impact. Legislation that embraced this approach, tagged as ‘streamlining’ bills in the legislature, have weakened environmental laws, drawn staunch opposition from cities and counties around the state, and prevented community groups like our affiliated unions from having a voice in what projects look like in the communities our members live and work in. In return, developers have offered a hodgepodge of labor ‘standards’ and affordability promises to appease lawmakers and make their asks seem reasonable, often without direct input from the Building Trades.
In 2022, we saw developers line up behind a set of labor standards on housing streamlining bills that were well short of what we believe would really put the residential construction industry back on track. The standards called for the payment of prevailing wages for workers, a noble step in the right direction, yet they lacked an education component so that workers in this industry, one where wage theft and the underground economy are rampant, would know exactly what they were entitled to. The standards also called for healthcare contributions for workers, yet several legal opinions said the language was unconstitutional because of how it was written. Due to severability language in standards, if the healthcare requirement was deemed through litigation to be unconstitutional, the standards would go away. Even worse, the standards also required apprenticeship ‘participation’ on projects but didn’t actually require the employment of apprentices, a missed opportunity that could have helped grow the workforce needed to build housing.
Some unions embraced the language last year, believing a step in the right direction was better than nothing. They were willing to accept the glaring problems in these labor standards in hopes that the efforts would drive more opportunities for their members and maybe a slightly better outcome for residential construction workers. Politicians like Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, Assemblymember Tim Grayson, and Senator Scott Wiener seized on the opportunity to pit unions against one another to push the language forward, hoping to deliver policy wins for the housing industry donors that have increasingly bankrolled their campaigns in recent years.
As the 2023 legislative session started, Senator Wiener partnered with the same allies and sought to drive unions once again against one another. Bills were introduced with the same deficient labor language from 2022, with Assemblymember Wicks even serving as a gatekeeper of sorts in the Assembly Housing Committee to prevent other labor language from being attached to housing bills. Clearly, the goal was to keep the unions fighting amongst themselves so developers could get what they have always wanted: complete and utter control of the industry.
As the legislative session was heating up in March, I put together the framework of a new approach to the residential construction market for the State Building Trades. My goal was to make projects safer, grow the construction workforce, and properly engage and improve the lives of workers already in the residential construction sector. Our attorney, Scott Kronland, used the conceptual framework I put together and drafted what we are calling California’s Residential Workforce Standards (see attached). With this new language, coupled with our work to create funding sources for affordable housing across the state, we believe the State Building Trades is taking back the high ground on housing.
Like the current language discussed above, our Residential Workforce Standards require the payment of prevailing wages on all covered projects. These wages include fringe benefit contributions as well, meaning workers will have access to funding for pensions, health and welfare plans, and training programs. We believe these wages, in addition to the other requirements under our language, will truly elevate the socioeconomic condition of construction workers in the residential sector.
Unlike the existing approach championed by Buffy Wicks and Scott Wiener, our Residential Workforce Standards actually require the employment of apprentices. Under our plan, 20% of the workers on residential construction projects where this language applies must be enrolled in state-approved apprenticeship programs. With this requirement, California will be utilizing the residential construction sector to invest in growing the workforce needed to build not just housing but also the infrastructure needed to support it.
In addition to the apprentice requirements, the Residential Workforce Standards also require that 50% of the workers be experienced journeypersons, either by being a graduate of a state-approved apprenticeship program (skilled and trained) or by having enough hours in the applicable trade to have completed an apprenticeship program. To make sure the apprentices being dispatched to these projects receive proper training on the job, our language requires workers that lack an apprenticeship completion certificate to have their work experience verified through a joint labor-management training center.
The verification process described in our standards is no different than what our unions do on a daily basis when organizing new members. Once a worker completes this process one time, they never have to do it again. We are beginning conversations with our affiliates to create a standardized process for verification, one that provides flexibility to workers that have been forced to work while being paid under the table, as well as those that have never been provided the documentation of work they were entitled to. This won’t be easy, but it’s a righteous cause that aligns with the goals of the labor movement.
There will be some who believe the requirement that the verification process only take place in joint labor-management training programs like our union apprenticeships is unfair. As proof of that point, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, a supporter of existing language, has already questioned why programs like those run by anti-union groups like the ABC and WECA should be excluded from the process. The answer is very simple: our programs are the only ones in the industry where the voice of workers and contractors are equally yoked. The officers and staff of our programs make decisions based on the desire to improve the industry for both sides of the equation. With our programs likely to have the largest share of training a new generation of workers in connection with these Residential Workforce Standards, we have a responsibility to make sure the workers training these apprentices are capable of doing so.
Our Residential Workforce Standards have some offramps that should be acknowledged. If a developer signs a Project Labor Agreement with a local Building and Construction Trades Council, the language acknowledges that as a sufficient alternative to these standards. Additionally, if a project meets the definition of a public work under state law and doesn’t fall under existing exclusions for affordable housing projects, a small percentage of the journeypersons on these projects will be expected to be graduates of state-approved apprenticeship programs. While the number of projects that fall under this category will be low, requiring graduates of apprenticeship programs to be prioritized on these projects will continue to incite demand for those that complete the apprenticeship journey; that’s not a bad thing.
I want to acknowledge that these new standards are a pivot for the State Building Trades. They represent an understanding that the residential sector is one that’s inherently different from other sectors of the construction market that we are engaged in, at least currently. Our goal remains, though, to see a day when all construction workers across every sector in California are well-trained, fairly compensated, and capable of working in any setting. Implementing these standards will begin the process of seeing that dream become a reality. We view the Residential Workforce Standards as a first-phase approach to improving the residential market. My hope remains that ten years from now, the residential market will be different, and the models we use in other sectors today will be the right next step.
The approach we’ve presented with the Residential Workforce Standards is fair, it’s good for workers, and it will dramatically improve the residential construction industry. We’ve presented a compromise that works, incorporating feedback we’ve heard from elected officials on both sides of the aisle. It also recognizes the dialogue we’ve had with our affiliates about how to best engage residential construction workers.
I’m calling on Senator Wiener, Assemblymember Wicks, and their allies to embrace these standards and incorporate them into the housing streamlining bills currently in print. Our Residential Workforce Standards will lift up workers, deploy tens of thousands of additional apprentices over the next decade, and create opportunities for our affiliated unions to engage with workers from the unrepresented side of the industry. Our language embraces existing workers in the residential construction sector and recognizes their role in helping build California out of the housing crisis.
It’s time for California to come together around how we best improve the plight of residential construction workers and the market as a whole. We’ve presented a pathway for unity; it’s time for California lawmakers to embrace it.