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How housing activists and unions found common ground in California

One of the biggest changes in state politics in years, explained.

A construction worker builds the frame of a new house.
Construction in Rodeo, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

Over the last decade, whenever California lawmakers tried to pass new legislation aimed at boosting the state’s alarmingly low housing stock, they’d come face to face with a politically powerful barrier: organized labor.

It wasn’t that unions wanted no new housing in California, but their top priority was ensuring that any new units would be built with unionized workers, and that the nearly half a million members represented by the State Building and Construction Trades Council, or “the Trades,” as it’s locally known, would be well positioned to find good jobs in the future. Keenly aware of how sharply industry standards have declined in parts of the country with less union power, and still reeling from job losses during the last recession, the Trades have assertively fought bills they deemed threatening to their way of life.

In the Democratic and proudly pro-labor state, opposition from the Trades has often been sufficient to kill housing bills. Liberal lawmakers have been sympathetic to union arguments that the state’s housing crisis will not be solved by driving construction workers into poverty themselves. Sometimes unions would object to bills that failed to require certain wage standards, or bills that didn’t require enough union workers to do the jobs. And when they’ve objected, labor leaders have not been hesitant to flex their political muscle, running attack ads against bill sponsors and donating tens of millions of dollars to political campaigns.

Today, though, a major sea change is happening across California, with some unions now either actively supporting the major housing bills winding their way through the legislature, or otherwise signaling that they’ll no longer fight them. This shift in pro-construction, “Yes in My Backyard” (or YIMBY) politics has been dramatic, and one that hardly anyone foresaw just three years ago.

Getting to this point involved some unions being willing to break with the rest of organized labor, as they argued it was worth expanding the number of good-paying construction jobs even if lawmakers could not guarantee those would be union jobs per se. These dissident unions promoted an alternative vision for membership growth, and provided cover to California politicians who worried about being branded as anti-labor.

The stakes for workers, though, are high: The vast majority of California construction workers are not unionized, and toil away on sites with weaker protections, earn far less than their unionized counterparts, and fall too frequently victim to injury and wage theft. Though construction accounts for about 6 percent of California’s total workers, it makes up 16 percent of the state’s fatal workplace injuries.

A new coalition of pro-housing activists and labor unions has emerged in the Golden State, hoping to prove what is admittedly still an untested proposition: Can lawmakers accelerate housing production fast enough to meet the needs of their growing population without sacrificing standards for workers?

Early attempts at housing bills went, well, not smoothly

A number of issues have stymied housing development in California over decades: restrictive zoning codes that favor existing homeowners over potential new residents, lengthy lawsuit-laden approval processes, soaring costs for construction and land, and a shortage of available workers to build.

Starting in 2016, then-Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown pushed a plan aimed at tackling at least one element of this stalemate: He proposed accelerating the approval process for certain housing projects in California, so long as they included a portion of units dedicated to affordable housing. One reason housing production has been so slow is because individuals and organizations can challenge development in court, under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. Originally passed in the 1970s to ensure local construction considers possible effects related to issues like air quality, noise, and natural resources, CEQA court challenges have since become a top tool for NIMBYs (which stands for “not in my back yard”) to block or delay new housing, by dragging out projects in costly litigation.

Today, it’s typical for a proposed housing project to face at least three or four years in court battles, with added costs in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Making this CEQA process both harder for opponents, and faster for developers, is referred to as “streamlining” in California policy circles.

A construction worker measures the weight of a bucket of lightweight cellular concrete as the company pours in a section of the new Mission Rock development near Oracle Park in San Francisco.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

But unions in 2016 objected to Gov. Brown’s proposed “streamlining” bill, arguing it would strip them of needed opportunity to negotiate higher wages for workers. Labor groups worried about accelerating the approval process for private-sector projects but not requiring developers to pay “prevailing wage” — which typically means the going union rate for labor costs in an area. Unions often use CEQA challenges to force developers’ hands on hiring union workers, though laws requiring the payment of “prevailing wage” historically have only been used for publicly financed projects, not the kind of private-sector development targeted by Gov. Brown.

The Trades mobilized hard against Brown’s legislative package, ran ads against his top housing official, and framed the whole effort as a giveaway to real estate tycoons. They successfully killed it.

The following year, to avoid a repeat of 2016, Democratic lawmakers introduced more modest streamlining bills, which notably included a huge shift in the state’s housing policies: Several proposed expanding requirements for prevailing wage from public works projects to also include some private-sector housing development. One of the bills — SB 35 — came from newly elected YIMBY state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco.

In short, Wiener wanted to streamline not only 100 percent affordable housing but some market-rate housing too. If he could promise unions well-paid jobs on both, he reasoned, then labor would hopefully relinquish its fight to preserve CEQA lawsuits as a negotiating tool.

To get it across the finish line, however, unions bargained one more request. For any housing project of 50 units or more that was not 100 percent affordable (meaning not entirely subsidized), developers would not only need to pay prevailing wage but also recruit a “skilled and trained” workforce to build. This “skilled and trained” language refers to workers who graduated from state-approved apprenticeship programs, which are mostly free for students, and are almost entirely union-run. Nearly every apprenticeship graduate later joins a construction union, so requiring workers to be “skilled and trained” is effectively requiring the hiring of more unionized workers.

The Trades still had general qualms about streamlining the housing approval process, and in particular about how eliminating CEQA lawsuits could more easily enable private-sector greed. Rudy Gonzalez, the secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, told Vox his members opposed past housing bills because they weren’t focused enough on dedicated affordable housing. “Who actually benefits from streamlining?” he asked. “I think developers benefit.”

But ultimately the “skilled and trained” language was enough for the unions to back SB 35 in 2017. Developers, meanwhile, didn’t love the idea of paying prevailing wage, but they agreed it was worth it if projects could move through the pipeline faster. SB 35 became law.

But it soon ran into another issue: a worker shortage.

The Trades acknowledges there’s a shortage of workers for California’s needed residential construction, and they know their existing unionized workforce is getting older. A union-backed study from 2019 stipulated that to meet the state’s affordable housing goals, California would need to recruit at least 200,000 new workers.

But the Trades insist things are not so dire yet that leaders need to abandon “skilled and trained” requirements, and they say more people will be incentivized to become “skilled and trained” only if lawmakers guarantee good union jobs waiting on the other end of an apprenticeship. About 70,500 people have graduated from these apprenticeships between 2010 and 2022, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations.

In the half-decade since SB 35 took effect, it’s become clear that the law has helped significantly increase affordable housing construction in California (a recent analysis found it streamlined over 18,000 new housing units between 2018 and 2021), but it’s been far less helpful in accelerating any market-rate construction. This has been partly due to a shortage of available “skilled and trained” workers developers need to hire.

How the Carpenters changed the story

Battles over whether additional California housing bills would require “skilled and trained” labor continued over the next several years, ultimately killing a slew of pro-housing bills in the legislature.

The California Conference of Carpenters — a labor organization representing about 80,000 unionized workers who install and repair wood structures — was more open to bills that included language only for prevailing wage. But leaders from both the Carpenters’ northern and southern councils dared not cross the powerful then-president of the Trades, who said unions would accept “skilled and trained” or nothing.

Change finally came in August 2021, when Jay Bradshaw, a longtime union organizer, successfully unseated a 20-year incumbent to take control of the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council, the Carpenters’ northern affiliate.

“While the labor story has ebbed and flowed and can get really complicated, it really can be simplified to say that one person made a gigantic difference in changing the conversation and that’s Jay Bradshaw,” said Todd David, who led the California YIMBY-aligned Housing Action Coalition between 2016 and 2022.

At the same time that Bradshaw ascended to power, the Carpenters’ Southwest Mountain States Regional Council — which represents workers in Southern California — elected its own new leader, Pete Rodriguez. Historically the two California Carpenters’ councils have not been closely aligned on policy, but Bradshaw and Rodriguez saw eye-to-eye not only on organizing new members, but also on making it easier to build housing — even if that meant stirring the pot with the rest of the Trades.

This first real test came in 2022. An Oakland Democratic Assemblymember, Buffy Wicks, worked closely with the Carpenters’ new leadership to hash out language the union could endorse. Wicks ultimately introduced AB 2011, a bill that would fast-track affordable housing development of old office buildings, strip malls, and parking lots in exchange for paying workers the prevailing wage. On larger projects (meaning at least 50 units) developers would have to provide health care and new tools to guard against wage theft. Larger projects would also require developers to see if “skilled and trained” workers were available, but if they weren’t, the project could proceed without them.

The Trades, along with the powerful and larger California Labor Federation, fought hard against Wicks’s AB 2011, arguing it had too many loopholes and would fail to protect workers in practice. AB 2011 had other opponents besides just organized labor, including some environmental groups and groups that advocate for local control.

But joining forces with the Carpenters on Wicks’s bill were two other dissenting unions: the 250,000-member strong California School Employees Association, which represents janitors, cafeteria workers, and other school support staff, and the influential SEIU, which represents more than 700,000 mostly low-wage service and health care workers across the state.

David Huerta, the president of California SEIU State Council, said after surveying members on issues they’re dealing with, it became clear SEIU needed to stand up more on housing. “Regardless of if you’re a janitor or a nurse or a health care worker or a home care worker, everyone overwhelmingly said the number one issue was housing affordability,” he told Vox. “We have members sleeping in their cars, who have big families sleeping in one-bedrooms, who are traveling hours and hours to get to work because they can’t afford to live near their jobs.”

Bradshaw, of the Carpenters, argued creating more high-paying jobs for all construction workers was more important than having guaranteed union jobs — and that unions could then aim to organize those workers. “For the elected officials we framed it as they do have a real choice,” Bradshaw told Vox.

In the end, California lawmakers didn’t really have to make a choice, and ended up passing Wicks’s bill, along with another similar bill that included the Trades’ preferred “skilled and trained” language. For now, developers basically can choose which law they want to follow if they want to convert strip malls to housing. (Yes, really.)

“AB 2011 was a huge victory, but they allowed the building trades to save face by passing both bills,” said David, the YIMBY activist.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Assemblymember Buffy Wicks at press conference following the signing of AB 2011.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Scott Wiener, author of the 2017 law that has successfully streamlined affordable housing projects but less successfully produced mixed-income and market-rate development, decided this year to run with the labor compromise language Wicks pushed in AB 2011. In a new bill — SB 423 — winding its way now through the legislature, Wiener is aiming to strip the “skilled and trained” requirement from his 2017 law, and add in the other labor protections from AB 2011, like for wage theft and health care.

The new president of the California Trades, Andrew Meredith, declared strong opposition to Wiener’s new bill when it was introduced in February, arguing it would hurt safety standards and housing affordability. The California Labor Federation backed the Trades up, too. “More profits for developers, less benefits for workers,” the labor federation’s leader said. “That makes zero sense from folks who claim to be pro-labor.”

In the winter and early spring, it looked increasingly like Wiener’s SB 423 would be one of the most contentious bills in the California legislature this year — a new proxy fight over who was more sufficiently for affordable housing and workers’ rights.

But in April a major twist happened: two more construction unions — the California Council of Laborers and the state Conference of Operating Engineers — broke with the Trades to publicly support Wiener’s housing bill. “We believe the balance that this legislation strikes will result in more available housing and ultimately lead to more affordable housing that could be utilized by our membership and those in need,” said the Operating Engineers in a public letter.

Corey Smith, the new head of the YIMBY-aligned Housing Action Coalition, told Vox he thinks the leadership from the Carpenters, and bringing in the other unions, “is perhaps the single most positive shift in California housing discourse, conversations, fights, and politics in the last 40 years.” It’s “such a big deal,” Smith continued, “because the single largest individual problem for homebuilding in California has been local discretion and CEQA and the Carpenters’ union basically said, ‘Hey, we’ll provide a political path to tackle this.’”

In June, two months after the Laborers and Operating Engineers joined the Carpenters in supporting SB 423, Meredith, the president of the California building trades, resigned from his post.

In another big political twist, the Trades have recently announced they are no longer opposing SB 423. They’re currently “neutral” on the legislation, and neutral on another bill to develop affordable housing on land owned by religious groups, which failed in 2020 and 2022 largely due to labor’s opposition.

“We’re still working with the bill author and we would love to be able to support,” the Trades’ new leader, Chris Hannan, told Vox. “We’re trying to get the labor standards right for workers.” Whether or not the Trades ends up supporting the housing bills, however, won’t really matter as much in Sacramento as the fact that they’re not actively fighting them anymore. Passage for both bills in September looks likely.

Two different visions for growing union membership

One important factor shaping the politics in California is that not all labor groups see rapid membership growth as inherently positive.

Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, recalls one of her earliest memories of advocating to expand California’s housing supply. “I was just starting to map out who would be pro-housing, and anyone who built housing seemed like a natural ally,” she told Vox. Foote met with a San Francisco planning commissioner who was also a member of the electrical trades.

“I had a one-on-one with him like, ‘Okay, all the construction industry trades are going to be on board? Let’s build a lot of housing!’ And he was very blunt that no we do not want to unleash production ... For him, there was a problem that if we unleashed housing production and grew our labor force, then when there’s a downturn all of his guys would be banging down the door at the union hall when times are low and out of work.”

The concern of maintaining union strength in a downturn is a real one. More than 365,000 construction jobs were eliminated in California during the last recession, between 2006 and 2011. “The point for them is not higher wages, the point is steady union jobs,” Foote argued. (The commissioner did not return Vox’s request for comment.)

Hannan, the new president of the Trades, told Vox his members want to build more housing at all income levels and pointed to the Trades’ support for growing their apprenticeship programs as proof they also want to add to their ranks.

“I don’t believe that to be true,” he said, when asked about certain guilds not supporting membership growth. “People are entitled to draw their own conclusions and come up with their own opinions but the building trade unions that I represent want to grow opportunities for their members and new members. The Trades has been a wonderful career for me and I want that for more people.”

Still, it’s true that membership growth may present a more uncomplicated opportunity for the Carpenters compared to other construction unions, making it easier for them to back YIMBY bills. It could help that the Carpenters offers its members 401(k) plans in addition to traditional pensions, and is organized in ways that might make an influx of new members less threatening to incumbent leaders controlling smaller geographic turfs. Over the last few years, the Carpenters have embraced an aggressive organizing strategy, growing its membership by 8 percent between fiscal years 2019 and 2022, according to the union.

Will the pro-labor compromise actually work?

An outstanding question is whether these union-backed streamlining bills will generate enough new private-sector housing in California, and there are skeptics.

Making it harder to file CEQA lawsuits should certainly help, advocates say, but the constant debate in housing policy circles is whether a market-rate project “pencils out” — meaning whether the developers’ projected earnings outweigh their building costs. Prevailing wage and other labor benefits raises the cost of a project.

Jennifer Hernandez, an environmental and land-use lawyer who has studied how CEQA lawsuits get abused by housing opponents, told Vox she thinks whether SB 423 works as intended is “a real bet.”

She pointed to Los Angeles, where a 2016 ballot measure that required paying prevailing wage failed to produce as much mixed-income housing as some LA leaders hoped to see. “It’s been too expensive and there’s not enough workers,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez thinks SB 423 will work best in the most expensive markets where developers can afford to charge tenants higher rents to recoup their costs.

No one could say exactly how much more a project might cost if prevailing wage is required, and different estimates abound. Ben Metcalf, the managing director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, told Vox his organization believes it increases prices in the 10-20 percent range, but can vary a lot by region. Some estimates have it lower than that, and some others have it higher.

Some YIMBY advocates say the higher wages for workers will “pencil out” if state lawmakers move next year to tackle the high “impact” fees that cities often attach to new housing in exchange for development approval.

Brian Hanlon, the president of California YIMBY, said he’s optimistic about the prevailing wage requirement, but only if these fees and other costly regulations like inclusionary zoning requirements are later addressed. “SB 423 is an important law to get rid of a lot of these CEQA lawsuits, but we need to get the math to work right,” he said.

Smith, of Housing Action Coalition, said it’s not clear yet how much will be saved by streamlining, but developers wouldn’t really care if they paid more for labor if they saved money elsewhere. The Carpenters and other unions have a vested interest in these projects penciling, too.

Ultimately policymakers and advocates of all persuasions recognize California is embarking on a major new chapter for housing politics — one where individuals will have less power to block housing production in court, and where the Trades have less power to block bills they don’t like in Sacramento.

“For years the way union politics worked in California is that each union would let the workers in that union lead on that policy, so you wouldn’t see the plumbers having a position on education, or SEIU getting in on housing,” said Foote, of YIMBY Action. “Now it’s like all bets are off.”

Correction, August 23, 9 am ET: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the 365,000 construction jobs lost during the recession; that figure refers to union and non-union jobs. It also said the Carpenters union offers 401(k) plans instead of defined-benefit pensions. It offers both.

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