Why Organized Labor Has Sided With NIMBYs To Restrict Housing Supply In California
And How That's Changing in Real Time
Abundance is a public policy vision that moves beyond zero-sum to imagine more for everyone. Thanks to the work of folks like Ezra Klein, Jerusalem Demsas, and Derek Thompson, Abundance is gaining traction in certain wonkish corners of the Internet.
But making Abundance real will take a deeper understanding of how power politics works. Power politics are driven by coalitions — Abundance adherents need to spend more time understanding coalitional dynamics.
Take housing, a key Abundance policy area. Per Matt Yglesias:
Housing matters so much because it dwarfs most other industries in terms of its sheer scale. Housing represents 15-18% of GDP. Rent is over 30% of the Consumer Price Index. People regularly spend a third or more of their income on housing. And even those numbers underestimate the centrality of housing scarcity issues to our society because many public services are in practice auctioned in the housing market.
And yet as important as housing policy is, many of us who follow the housing debate don’t understand some of the key political players.
The well-known players of consumer politics are YIMBYs and NIMBYs. These are the regular people who have strong views on housing.
NIMBYs are fueled by loss aversion (e.g. property value, neighborhood character) and are well-organized.
By preference (polling) many people want housing built, but most voters have relatively weakly-held feelings, and only a small subset openly identify and organize as YIMBYs, though that group is growing thanks to the work of Klein, Demsas, and Thompson and organizations like CA YIMBY, East Bay for Everyone, and Abundant Housing LA among many others.
Ideologically aligned groups, made up of regular people with passion and shared conviction, can be powerful in politics.
But the perennial institutional players, the “enterprise players” of politics, will likely decide the fate of major housing legislation. Organized labor groups – which could opt to side with NIMBYs or with YIMBYs – will be an especially important player in California.
Labor Unions & Housing Politics
Our intuition is that Labor, whose members are part of “the working class,” would be relentlessly focused on increasing housing affordability, the burden of which falls primarily on… the working class.
But for the past few years, Labor has effectively allied with NIMBYs, for a particular set of reasons that don’t actually align with the interests of most working people.
The first thing to understand is a general norm of Labor: on policy issues, different unions stay in their own lane and defer to the most interested union. That means: all Labor stands with teachers on teacher tenure rules; all Labor stands with SEIU when nurses are negotiating with hospitals; and all Labor stands with the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (“the Building Trades,” or just “the Trades”) on land use issues.
On their own, the Trades are a powerful group: they have 350,000 members across more than a dozen sub-trades — e.g. plumbers, pipefitters, electrical workers — with members in every district in the state. They spend substantially on politics — e.g. they’re the biggest single donor to Governor Newsom over his time in office — and, under the leadership of Presidents Robbie Hunter and now Andrew Meredith, they have built a reputation for aggressively using their power.
But the norms of Labor amplify that power by aligning both the financial muscle and the moral authority of the California Labor Federation behind whatever the Trades set as their housing policy.
This Labor norm — sticking together, and letting the most impacted union lead policymaking in a given area — makes sense as a general strategy. But the high cost of housing is a major issue for almost every union’s membership. To live near a job, many working people become rent burdened, spending 30-50% of income on rent. Others are pushed into super-commutes, with untold effects on everything from family life to climate change. As one Bay Area union leader told me: “there’s no amount of wage increases we can bargain at the table to offset the median home price being $1.3 million in the Bay Area.”
Over the past few years, the Trades’ policy preferences have been defined not by what they support but by what they oppose. And that starts with streamlining.
Streamlining, Discretionary Review, By-Right
Streamlining speeds up the approval of new housing: it is the process by which some housing types are exempted from discretionary review (much more detail in this lengthy footnote).
Opposition to streamlining is opposition to building housing at scale, and opposition to building housing at scale is opposition to housing affordability, which affects all union workers, from teachers to government employees to food & commercial workers. Again, the norms of Labor have thus far prevented other unions from supporting policy that would seem to benefit the majority of their members.
So why would a Building union effectively oppose more building?
The Trades are anti-streamlining because they get leverage via the discretionary review process — the additional veto points give them more places to negotiate strong project labor agreements, which dictate pay and working conditions on projects.
If pushed to accept streamlining policy, the Trades insist on using “skilled & trained” language. While that sounds good — I want professionals to be competent at what they do — “skilled & trained” means workers on the project must have gone through an apprentice program run by the union.But there aren’t nearly enough programs to train enough workers to make this requirement feasible — thus “skilled & trained” becomes a poison pill that sinks the viability of construction projects.
The Trades are ok with slow growth. Discretionary review ensures the Trades have negotiating leverage in their project labor agreements, and they are not particularly oriented around growth and organizing because their chaptered structure gives union leadership little incentive to grow.Trades union members also make more money than members of most other unions, so housing affordability is a slightly smaller problem for them.
Conditions in The Labor Coalition Are Shifting
For Abundance proponents, 2022 has been a year of green shoots within Labor. The Carpenters Union, traditionally allied with the Trades, have started to challenge them on streamlining issues. Specifically they are openly fighting the Trades on two big pieces of policy: the Affordable Homes Now charter amendment (AHN) in San Francisco and AB 2011 in the state legislature.
Both policies would use “prevailing wage” language instead of “skilled & trained,” which means workers have to be paid living wages and given benefits, but they don’t have to be trained by and members of the union in order to work on projects.
Led by Jay Bradshaw in the North and Pete Rodriguez in the South, the Carpenters are using their institutional political muscle to push for increased housing production — and other types of building projects — aligning themselves with the Abundance Agenda.
Even more importantly, with the Carpenters on board, other unions now have permission to join the pro-housing fight. Accordingly the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have signed on as supporters of AB 2011, as have the California School Employees Association (CSEA).
Building the Abundance Coalition
Politics is coalitional. You don’t win big fights by yourself.
While it’s exciting to see the nascent Abundance Movement build ideological support, with YIMBYs as the tip of the spear, we will ultimately only succeed if we find ways to partner with some of the more traditional institutional (enterprise) players.
The Carpenters are just such a group; their material interests line up with our post-material ones.
Building more housing in California is the tentpole issue for the Abundance Movement; AHN and AB 2011 represent important opportunities to start making the Abundance Agenda real. Now is the time to get engaged to help these efforts get across the line and further develop an Abundance coalition with allies in Labor to push forward on progress in California.
Calls to action:
If you happen to have a relationship Sen. Portantino or Pro Tem Atkins, send them a note to let them know AB 2011 is important to you!
If you live in San Francisco and want to support the Affordable Homes Now charter amendment, send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you have friends who are Abundance-oriented, share Modern Power with them!
Organized capital (companies) could be major players too. We hope to write a future Modern Power post on this topic.
As a senior YIMBY elected warned me: “It’s not useful to call out the Building Trades in a monolithic way. Like any human enterprise, the Building Trades' view on many of these matters change depending on their leadership. While it appears monolithic at this moment, in my years in the Legislature there have been at least three versions of the Building Trades — each version would be described differently than how they are described in this post.” On that note, and to their credit, the Trades did support Sen. Wiener’s ambitious SB 50, but that was with a different political director at the helm.
Discretionary review means individual projects receive extra layers of scrutiny beyond the general zoning plan process. At a philosophical level, this looks like “more democracy,” if you imagine democracy as a spectrum where the more community input into a process, the better. As Ezra notes in a recent podcast on housing affordability (76 min), “It’s almost a cliché to say that the government that is closest to the people is the government that governs best. [Yet on housing] that is failing at a very deep level, and it is failing worse in the parts where it is most deployed.
Jerusalem has argued (14 min) that the people who show up to public comment are non-representative, such that “participatory democracy” is not in fact representative democracy. She advocates for a return to a more traditional representative system.
What would that look like?
We elect our leaders. They appoint bureaucrats to use their expertise to plan things like city zoning. The city planners study transit, jobs, neighborhoods, etc. to figure out what makes sense where. This isn’t a perfect process, nor is it impermeable to political power, but it makes decent sense, and in the end you have a zoning map that dictates certain requirements like residential v. mixed use v. commercial, height restrictions, etc.
The Building Trades oppose streamlining, but so do several other powerful groups who derive power from the additional veto points discretionary review creates. This notably includes local elected officials, represented in Sacramento via the California League of Cities, who enjoy the power that comes from discretionary review and don’t want to give it up.
Startup analogy: When there was suddenly demand for lots of data scientists, if a law said "companies may only hire data scientists who have been certified by the official data science body," there would have been a massive data scientist shortage and a lot less data science work would have gotten done.
Technically “skilled & trained” only requires that a certain % of workers per project have gone through union training programs. So for example the Trades wanted 1/3rd of all workers on AB 2011 projects to be “skilled & trained.” But currently only 1/6th of workers would qualify as skilled & trained, per the LA Times Editorial Board endorsement of AB 2011. (5 min)
The Trades have a chaptered structure, with 21 local building trades councils spread across the state, each of which bring together a coalition of affiliated unions representing workers in various construction trades. Within this structure, there’s a certain counter-incentive to grow the union. Each local council is run by a President, and that President is elected by his members. If he grows his membership, he is changing his electorate. And he will not be the one directly growing the group — a hired organizer will. If new members join the union, will they be loyal to the current President (who they don’t have any relationship with) or the organizer?
Very clear-eyed analysis!! (disclosure: I work for the Nor Cal Carpenters Union)
A word about the "prevailing wage" standards in the two policy initiatives backed the Carpenters (in S.F. and in the state legislature): Prevailing wage linkage to streamlining shouldn't be seen by Abundance Movement protagonists as a transactional cost of coalition formation. The elevation of labor standards for residential construction workers should be seen as a *necessary* element of a housing abundance agenda.
Why? Because 100,000 - 200,000 new/additional construction workers to build homes won't just materialize if/when entitlement barriers are removed. Evidence I've compiled shows that residential construction wages & benefits are bad and they don't improve on their own relative to other occupational options, even during times of high demand.
Why don't contractors raise wages & benefits enough to attract the workers in necessary numbers? It's a collective goods problem. The benefits of individual contractor investments in workers aren't immediate enough, and rival contractors can poach the people whom you've invested in training.
Anyone who wants the long version of the evidence & the argument should download my report from early 2019 (it includes an Executive Summary!) or read the accompanying op-ed.
Full report: https://www.smartcitiesprevail.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/SCP_HousingReport.0118_2.pdf