LABOR How Housing Activists and Unions Found Common Ground in California

VOX, Rachel M. Cohen, August 21, 2023

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

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.

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