Michael Theriault headshot

The San Francisco Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors have long told us in hearings on project approvals and land use that we cannot bring labor issues into the discussion.

Their mistake – and ours – has been to accept the shorthand of “union” and “non-union” instead of talking about what these represent.

Instead, they listen to testimony on neighborhood compatibility, on traffic, on design, and on numerous other impacts of a new building or of a change of land or building use. They do not hear testimony on the lives of the workers who produce the new building or carry out the change of land or building use.

I don’t know that any legal barrier bars the lives of construction workers from the Board’s or Commission’s deliberations. One real barrier may be a belief – not necessarily conscious – that the effects of building or land use change that must be considered are long-term, and our work is temporary

In our modern economy, the distinction between “permanent” and “temporary” employment is collapsing; permanence of employment is now largely an illusion. As they split, consolidate, adapt, atrophy, or move, companies shed employees, with none of the loyalty to them that supposedly once existed. We hear that we are entering a “gig economy,” in which workers piece together a living from a series of short-term jobs.

If so, then employment in the broader economy is becoming more what ours has always been. The union Building Trades system of hiring halls, of collectively bargained wages, of apprenticeship given continuity not through employer but through a jointly-administered program, and of multi-employer pension and health plans is a way of making a “gig economy” produce long careers through which workers and their families might actually thrive, instead of struggling day-to-day. Our system could even serve as a model for other occupations in the “gig economy” and for union efforts to organize them.

Seen in this light, the impact of a building project’s standards of construction employment is permanent. It is almost certainly one of a series of such employments for workers. If it does not provide workers healthcare for themselves or their families, this does not remove their need for it – or indeed their obligation, under the Affordable Care Act.

Instead, these workers can use less of their wages for housing, food, clothing, education. If those wages in turn are the generally lower wages obtained through individual request instead of collective strength, workers have even less for their needs. Given the immediacy of the needs for housing, food, and clothing, it is often spending on education that suffers first, and so a supposedly short-term effect becomes generational.

Likewise, if the project does not draw on genuine and effective apprenticeship programs, it deprives the next generation of workers an opportunity to learn a craft, and damages both the craft and the workers long-term.

We in unions know we can never assume that the individual project that fails workers will remain an isolated instance. Like a crack in a weld, it will propagate itself until the structure we have built to serve workers will be put in danger of collapse. In most Building Trades jurisdictions outside of the San Francisco Bay Area (and Chicago and St. Louis, which alone, I have sometimes heard, share this exception with us) most residential work is performed non-union. Even high-rise residential is often non-union in such supposed Union bastions as New York.

We are far from having all the residential market here, especially at the smaller end, but we work in all of it. Much of the future of housing in San Francisco is likely to be in the mid-range scale of stick-frame-on-podium. This is a construction type for which non-union general contractors exist on a small scale here and aplenty elsewhere in California, even as close as San Mateo County. We have seen some of the bigger out-of-town contractors here already.

Some of our hiring hall benches may be short in the present boom, but the fact that our current workforce and contractor base are busy does not say that we cannot demand of non-union contractors and the developers using them that they provide their workers at least as good a level of wage and benefit as we have obtained for our members. Better still, non-union contractors can become union signatories, so that wages, benefits, and training are assured, and workers are not failed.

If we do not call a project to account for failing workers, and if we do not insist that those who should be friends to workers also call the project to account, then, we risk hearing someday – and knowing ourselves – that the residential market is no longer ours, and that developers feel free to build without us. This will not just mean harm to unions; it will mean long-term damage to families and to communities, including those the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors represent.

The lives and needs of construction workers should be at least as much a subject of their deliberations on building or on land use as any other.

Organized Labor


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