Michael Theriault headshot

I am often asked what the boundary in residential construction is between work Building Trades consider theirs and work they concede to the non-union sector. Do we surrender apartment buildings of ten units to the non-union? Twenty units? Forty?

My answer: We accept no boundary. We represent all workers in our industry, and we do this best through union contracts with their employers.

The non-union sector recognizes no boundaries and expands into larger construction whenever it can. In the former union stronghold of New York City some high rises are now built entirely non-union. Even in the Bay Area residential high-rise construction increasingly mixes union and non-union contractors.

Well within many of our careers, San Francisco unions had much of the small residential market. I worked 1990 to 1993 for a small union-signatory steel contractor with a shop South of Market. We pinned back together unreinforced masonry buildings damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but we also reinforced “soft stories” at the ground floors of many scores of residential buildings, most wood-framed, many of them single-family homes. We would work sometimes on three different residential buildings in a day.

Two even smaller union-signatory steel contractors also did small residential work in the City then. Together the three contractors held a majority market share.

All three closed their doors within the decade, for different reasons. Non-union contractors took their market share.

Many general contractors with which we worked were non-union, but a good number were Carpenter-signatory. Some of these have also gone out of business. A few remain.

The Great Recession of 2008-2012 closed down even more signatory residential contractors.

I believe most Trades can recount similar histories.

We cannot consider this work gone. As it ever did, it breeds non-union contractors. The most successful will challenge us on any ground we believe ours. We need to challenge them on ground they consider theirs.

Early in my time as Secretary-Treasurer I considered working with signatory small residential contractors to establish a trade association to advocate for them, and to link it to an all-union “Diamond-Certified” type program to which consumers could turn for advice on the best contractors to use on any residential project. We have negotiated space for this in some project labor agreements through provisions to require distribution of union promotional materials to condominium buyers.

An intern we had for a few weeks convened small signatory contractors to learn what they believed would help them. They wanted unions to be their advocates, especially in buildout of condominiums. They had no thought of doing this themselves through a trade organization.

In not contemplating an association that would require their financial support, they were more realistic than parsimonious. If they were many, expense could be broadly shared and not overburden any individual contractor. If they saw themselves few and under siege, their spending would necessarily be more restrained.

I remain convinced that a union residential contractor trade association and “Diamond Certified” type program can help retake market share but recognize this will not happen without growing the contractor base. To grow the contractor base by organizing non-union small residential contractors will be difficult without leverage. To grow it by helping our own members become contractors might bear more fruit, but we need leverage to ensure them access to the market and support them.

We might find points of leverage among large owners of small residential properties. Often numerous homes or small apartment buildings are held by a single business. Some businesses holding multiple properties are family-owned, some investor-owned. They are frequent users of construction services in repair, remodel, and additions. These businesses can be subject to either positive pressure, such as hard-core sales pitches, or negative pressure, ranging from site or office protests to shareholder protests to alliances between unions and tenants.

Allying with existing tenants’ rights organizations may be difficult, because of their habitual opposition to new development, but not impossible. We have supported tenant causes often when these were not simply questions of ideology. We backed State Senator Mark Leno’s anti-eviction legislation, for example, and have endorsed June’s Proposition F, which would help tenants obtain legal representation. Just as we have allied with businesses case-by-case without accepting permanent alliances, so we might ally on some matters with tenant organizations while agreeing to disagree on others.

But such alliances are tricky. Our unions are accustomed to compromise to achieve improvements. Other organizations don’t always understand compromise.

If alliances with existing tenants’ rights organizations are unworkable, we might approach tenants directly. Many tenants complain of quality of workmanship or of failure to make needed repairs in their residences. I was assembling a campaign of direct tenant approach some years ago against a national apartment owner and developer before its local leadership changed and assumed a more union-friendly face. We might even help tenants develop their own organizations.

Let business contemplate that possibility: Tenants in a city where they far outnumber homeowners in alliance with an organization with a history of effective action on behalf of the working class.

And then let anyone dare talk about boundaries in residential construction to our representation of workers.

Organized Labor


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