Michael Theriault is stepping down as Secretary-Treasurer of the San Francisco Building & Construction Trades Council after 13 years. Pictured: On the site of the Calaveras Dam replacement project in 2014.
After 13 years as Secretary-Treasurer of the San Francisco Building & Construction Trades Council, Michael Theriault is retiring Aug. 2. Over the course of his tenure, Theriault took lead on engineering a string of successful project labor agreements, oversaw some of the city’s largest developments, helped reestablish shop classes at SFUSD, advocated for social justice, fought for a Citywide PLA and guided the Council through the worst economic crisis in generations.
Theriault was born in San Francisco and raised on the southside of Bernal Heights. He joined Ironworkers Local 377 in 1985, where he served as a job steward, foreman, general foreman, union organizer and union business rep.
Theriault sat down with long-time Organized Labor contributor Paul Burton for a lengthy discussion of his tenure as Secretary-Treasurer.
Organized Labor: What do you think are your most important accomplishments as SFBCTC Secretary-Treasurer?
Michael Theriault: The most recent things to point to are the string of project labor agreements that will guarantee that building trades jobs will support families for a generation to come through long term projects like Treasure Island and Hunters Point/Candlestick Point and the Sewer System Improvement Project. There are shorter ones that are still long term like Schlage Lock, the Transbay Terminal and 5M; and others that are on the verge of being completed such as Park Merced, which is very long-term, Pier 70, Mission Rock. Those will assure that the trades have a central place in San Francisco for decades.
Going back well prior to that and part of what made some of them possible, we had fights over development – some of which are somewhat forgotten – that resulted in some very close votes to get those projects approved. There was a big fight over the Hunters Point/Candlestick Point project which was approved 6 – 5 at the Board of Supervisors. Park Merced was a 6 – 5 vote to get that project passed. Very major work depended on building trades advocacy, so it’s in part a recognition of that work that developers have been willing to work with us on PLAs – not that it was easy because they are negotiating in the interest of their business but they’ve definitely seen that we helped them and acknowledge that by dealing with us.
There are a host of smaller projects, some of which we failed, some we succeeded in getting passed, but for a time it seemed that every project was a major fight – like the CPMC hospital [on Van Ness], that has been great for hundreds of building trades workers for several years who are still over there now. We have a PLA on that as well.
There are a couple of other things too. We joined the ACLU, the San Francisco and Alameda County Labor Councils, and the AFL-CIO in suing the Bush administration successfully to undo its use of Social Security no-match provisions in immigration enforcement. That, I think, was an unprecedented move by a building trades council anywhere in this country. It was necessitated by our long-standing commitment to our immigrant members, and we protected them. We have new challenges clearly that actually began under the Obama administration and have intensified under the Trump administration and made more virulent so we’ll have more tasks to take on in that regard.
And one thing that may pay off long term that may seem small now was our success in getting shop classes re-established at the San Francisco Unified School District.If the trades actually see the opportunity in that and tie themselves and the district more closely together through that program, that makes us a central part of the life of San Francisco in a way we have not been for a generation at least.
OL: How much of these successes were the result of work by the SFBCTC before you became Secretary-Treasurer, such as re-establishing shop classes?
MT: The fight over development is an old fight. Re-establishing shop classes is something the trades have talked about at least since 1989 when John O’Connell [wherenew shop classes began a few years ago] was closed by the earthquake. But it got traction under me. We’ve had a radical expansion actually of coverage under project labor agreements under my tenure.
OL: Was that a focus and priority of yours when you started?
MT: I saw the major projects that were being proposed and saw the opportunities that coverage under PLAs would present. I was not alone in the trades in thinking that—everyone else did as well.
OL: What are some things you wish you had accomplished?
MT: There’s a slew of things – some of which I talked about in my columns in the last few months. For some years, I have tried to get the school district and our apprenticeship programs to work out agreements to give a specific value to completion of a shop program for entry into apprenticeships; that’s obviously not going to get done by the time I retire. I hope they see that opportunity and take it, that our JATCs see that opportunity.
OL: City Build filled that gap in a way.
MT: What I’ve always preached about City Build is it exists because there were no good shop programs in the schools. That’s not entirely true, as there are folks who will do other things for a while before they figure out there’s not really a good lifetime in those things; then they are ready to look at the trades. So, for them, City Build Academy is still an essential institution. Full credit to Sophie Maxwell for pushing that; it was an idea I was happy to jump on right away. As I’ve said many times, strengthening the pipeline to apprenticeships is one of the most important things we can do.
OL: It seems like City Build and shop classes in high schools could be linked together more in the future.
MT: Yes. I think the shop classes in high schools should lead straight to apprenticeships; that should be the link.
OL: Using the multi-core craft curriculum.
MT: Yes, they are using it now. It’s something we got in through the PLA with the school district.
OL: What do the trades and unionism mean to you? How did your experience as a rank and file union member and ironworker inform your work as SFBCTC leader?
MT: Understanding of the work, and the flow of work, is more important to union leaders in the trades than in most other unions. How the workers engage with the contractors, how they engage among themselves on a job site – you don’t know that stuff unless you’ve worn a belt. There’s a little bit of a tradition – not consistent but common in the trades because foremen and job superintendents are often represented positions for us – you come to union leadership after actually having run work. That helps you see the necessities of the contactors and understand them and understand if they are full of shit when they’re making claims in talking to you as a union rep. So that was useful for me.
OL: During your term, the trades experienced high unemployment with the ‘Great Recession’ / economic downturn of 2008-2009. How did the work of the SFBCTC before that time help to keep members employed?
MT: The downturn – I hope no successor of mine has to go through that. That was as severe for us as anything since the Great Depression. And the complete lack of care by some in the political class as to what their actions meant for the men and women for whom I care deeply was bitterly frustrating.
OL: Are you talking about local politicians opposing developments that would have created jobs?
MT: Yes, local politicians and fights that meant nothing.
OL: And so the building trades depended on public works and public sector spending.
MT: That we had a PLA with the School District, the first ever, was immensely helpful during the downturn. So was the Water System Improvement project, and the PLA we had there [with the SFPUC]. So was the Transbay Terminal and the PLA we have there. The investment of union pension money through the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust gave us three private sector projects that were also extremely helpful.
OL: And part of that is you had already built relationships with good union developers like Emerald Fund [which used AFL-CIO HIT funds on 333 Harrison].
MT: We always had a good relationship with Emerald Fund. The interesting one was with Patrick McNerney and Martin Builders, which started as a contentious relationship. We kept a dialogue going through our difficulties, and two of those projects were his [Arc Light at 178 Townsend and Potrero Launch at 2235 3rd Street]. So it was good relationships with pro-union developers and successful advocacy with previously non-union developers.
OL: Also during your term, San Francisco enacted a Local Hire ordinance. Initially the SFBCTC opposed the local hire ordinance as it did not take into account that many BT workers could not afford to live in SF and had moved to the East Bay or further away and could be denied access to jobs because they no longer lived in the City. Do you think now that local hire has been a success, with the BT unions able to get local hires into union apprenticeship programs and become members? While the crisis of housing affordability has not gone away, has local hiring helped keep more SF workers in the city?
MT: We were not against local hire. We had our doubts about a mandatory system for a variety of reasons. One was that it always said it was going to go to 50 percent. That was an unworkable number unless by some miracle the dearth of middle income housing in San Francisco was addressed. If that was an unworkable number, and that mandate was strictly enforced, that would lead to penalties [imposed on contractors or developers] that could reduce the amount of work. Additionally, it made it impossible to link the policy to a project labor agreement – which is what we wanted, and asked for from the beginning. Because inevitably any failure to reach 50 percent would be blamed by the traditional opponents of project labor agreements on the project labor agreement and not on the dearth of middle income housing in San Francisco.
The 30 percent number at which the policy is now frozen is a number I discussed with local hire proponents well before they pushed the mandate. I think is a reasonable number but still not without its difficulties. If an ambitious politician were to look closely at how this policy has played out, even though overall it has been a success, they could find points of attack where it has not done what it is supposed to do. It is supposed to be on a contractor-by-contractor and trade-by-trade basis that the 30 percent is achieved. And the off-ramps have to be enforced with a degree of flexibility rather than strictly as written. So even after the 30 percent number was frozen, I’ve continued to say we need to look more closely at the off-ramps and fine tune them so they are more fully functional and not unrealistic. For example, if you can’t meet the mandate but if you are drawing from an apprenticeship that has a direct entry agreement with City Build you get a pass for not meeting the mandate. But the direct entry agreement is defined in an unrealistic way in the ordinance. So although there are agreements between City Build and various trades, I don’t know of any that meet the requirements of the ordinance.
OL: Now some of PLAs or community benefits agreements include local hire provisions, either on a case-by-case basis or with the local hire ordinance folded in.
MT: Many have tied themselves to the local hire ordinance.
OL: Also related to local hire, what do you see for the future of the SFBCTC, politically and otherwise, with the influx of more women, people of color and younger workers into the trades as well as formerly non-union contractors like some of the small Chinese American contractors who have unionized? Does the changing demographics of BT unions mean they will become more ‘progressive’?
MT: There are two different questions there. Contractors and businesses are inherently conservative, minority or not. When I was an ironworker organizer and we signed one of our earlier Chinese contractors, I visited their office where there were plaques on the wall from the Republican National Committee thanking them for contributions.
Asking about workers, your premise is wrong. We were heavily minority already in the trades. When you look at the City’s local hire reports, the primary effect is not to reduce the numbers of Caucasian participation in city work. The real effect is a redistribution of work among minorities, so it is less Latino and more African-American and Asian. In the trades moving to a ‘minority majority’ composition, we do not move beyond questions of race, we make them more complicated.
The composition of the workforce is one thing. Whether it becomes quote unquote progressive or not – first of all I have to say ‘what the hell does that mean?’ And the fact that I ask that leads me to my next point which is in a way the composition of the workforce will not shape the politics of the trades so much as the work will shape the politics of that workforce. Because the fact that we in the trades deal on a daily basis with materia dura, with the recalcitrance of things that do not bow to language, to terminology, gives us a pragmatic cast of thought that defies labels. We are like the Kurds, we have no friends but the mountains. That is the point of view we take: Democrat or Republican, what are you doing that works? Because that is what we want to see.
OL: As we saw with the members of the Board of Supervisors elected in 2008 – Avalos, Campos, Chiu and Mar were considered progressive to some degree but Chiu turned out to be really strong for the trades, and is still a progressive. And Chiu supported projects the others opposed and asked, how is it progressive to oppose developments that would help fund affordable housing construction?
MT: The labels make no sense to me. We are not a huge organization. By focusing our efforts in particular elections, we were able to make a difference for a candidate. I’d say it’s about 50 -50 whether those candidates were good for us. You have to do it; sometimes it really has paid off, as it did with Chiu, and sometimes it’s even useless.
OL: What do you want to say about the late Mayor, Ed Lee?
MT: Ed Lee was in some ways a great surprise. He came up through San Francisco politics and advocacy at a time when there was a great divide between the San Francisco Building Trades and Asian contractors, and the Asian community, with some exceptions. We made a lot of progress in that regard, and he came to understand that and deal with us in a supportive way that I really had not expected. He probably would have fought us on the citywide PLA policy, but on other things he was really a great friend of the building trades. Even with the citywide PLA, I had great hope that we could have brought him around.
OL: Can you talk a little about the opposition to the citywide PLA?
MT: There is a mix of things in that opposition. Part of it is incomprehension of what a PLA actually does and of the ability of small local contractors to work under it – union or non-union. Some of it is the conservative nature of business. What business will happily invite the unions into their business? There may be some but they are the exception, not the rule. They are inherently resistant to our involvement. Early on, the national organizations like the ABC were pulled into this through the Local Business Advisory Committee under the City Administrator. Who invited them in, I don’t know but they were clearly invited because those were not publicly noticed meetings. We found out after the fact. They were invited in early on with the specific purpose of ginning up opposition to our policy, which they did. That took what was a local issue and made it a national issue.
OL: In the future, will San Francisco become ‘built out’ at some point with no more space for new construction? If so, can BT unions capture more small residential and commercial projects?
MT: I don’t buy that. There is a lot of work to be done in San Francisco still.
OL: Like building affordable housing on city owned land?
MT: Not just that. If you look at the transit corridors like Taraval and Geary, you’ll see a lot of one and two story buildings with small businesses. That’s an under-use of existing land.
OL: And there is resistance to those efforts, as we saw with opposition to Scott Wiener’s bill to speed up development along transit corridors.
MT: There is resistance but there is a gradual turn around in the demographics that may lead toward that speedup. There is opportunity there for the building trades. San Francisco won’t be built out in the next 20 years. Some people have pointed out that San Francisco is one-fifth as densely populated as Paris. Nobody says Paris is an uninhabitable city.
I think it is absolutely critical for the building trades to gain more market share in the residential market – particularly in the medium and smaller size projects.
OL: Anything else to say about your personal plans?
MT: I’m going to work in my garden and write bad poetry.