Some of the most conservative members of the labor movement—the building trades— are learning that how cities grow really matters. The lessons they are learning are a common-ground road map between labor, environmentalists, and advocates for urban justice.
Activists have long understood that some union members see the value of smart growth. The Food & Commercial Workers oppose new Walmarts, for example, and the Amalgamated Transit Union supports coalitions to protect and expand transit service. But connections have been less common with the building trades—the unionized electricians, carpenters, laborers, plumbers, sheet metal workers and other skilled workers who construct our built environment.
Indeed, some people might assume that sprawl doesn’t matter to the trades because it involves construction. But actually, sprawl has been a disaster for the trades; anti-union contractors penetrate markets from the outside in, the same way Walmart invaded communities where small neighborhood businesses once thrived.
Race has also been central to the story. As sprawl’s white flight caused central cities and inner-ring suburbs to become majority-minority, some trades failed to recruit and organize many workers of color, weakening them in many ways. Higher rates of unionization benefit all workers in an industry; and in construction specifically, joint union-management apprenticeship programs have consistently done better than non-union programs in recruiting, graduating and placing workers of color and women.
Now, thanks to some exceptionally honest and self-critical building trades leaders, we can present the history of three metro areas that lay out these dynamics in vivid detail. If “union density” means the share of work performed by union members, the trades are learning to recite grocery and transit workers’ mantra: “Urban density is good for union density.”
Atlanta: Suburbanization Shrinks the Trades Down to “the Alamo”
In 1989, Charlie Key, a plumber and then-business manager of the North Georgia Building & Construction trades Council, gave a cautionary speech about the trades’ catastrophic loss of density in Atlanta. Things were already so bad, Key said, that there was only one totally union construction project underway in the region. “We made all the classic mistakes. We ignored public opinion. We ignored our political base. We ignored the residential and small jobs. We ignored the small towns and suburbs. We ignored a growing black population.”
There was a clear geographic dimension to his story: non-union contractors got a foothold in the market on small jobs in outlying but fast-growing suburban areas and then worked their way in and up.
Instead of embracing the civil rights movement, the building trades in Atlanta, Key said, responded to the recession of 1957-1958 by becoming even more restrictive in their admissions policies. This made them weak when the region experienced a big surge in in-migration (including many Southern blacks) which stimulated a lot of residential and commercial construction.
Atlanta was known as “the city too busy to hate,” Key said, but “we were too busy to hate [because] whites were busy packing up and leaving for the suburbs. Because our members joined that flight to the suburbs, we quickly lost much of our political clout with the city. And, because we were scattered over several suburban counties, we didn’t have a concentration of power in the suburbs either.”
“The next things to go were the service stations and convenience stores, followed in rapid succession by the strip shopping centers, warehouses and light industrial buildings. But this too was mostly in the suburbs. The unions were still doing almost everything downtown and almost everything inside the ‘donut’—the developing perimeter highway,” said Key.
“They can’t build the big ones without us,” the trades told themselves. “Well, that might sound macho if said with enough bravado, but it was actually the first widely used symbol of surrender,” said Key. When the trades marched on Mayor Maynard Jackson in 1974 to protest non-union construction of MARTA (the transit rail system), the mayor greeted them by saying, “Welcome to Atlanta.”
The trades adopted the “Atlanta Plan,” which Key calls a quota system for blacks entering apprenticeship programs. Hiring was again stalled by a recession, and then the trades lost a big power plant job, a two-unit coal-fired power plant for Georgia Power Company.
Chaos ensued. Several trades unions split off and formed a rival council. Non-union companies began winning bigger commercial and industrial projects in the suburbs, moving up the food chain. It became common for jobs to be only partially union.
“The new catchphrase in union construction was, ‘Everything inside the perimeter is ours.’ It sounded good, but it wasn’t true. Even if it had been true, it was like Sam Houston and Davy Crockett saying ‘Don’t worry men, everything inside the Alamo is ours.’ ”
By the early 1980s, union contractors were quietly double-breasting (creating non-union subsidiaries). And although the trades had reunited into one council, they could not agree on a unified bargaining position in recessionary 1983 and most suffered wage cuts. Members grew demoralized.
The North Georgia trades worked to recruit more African-American and Hispanics into their apprenticeship programs, including during the 1996 Olympics. But by the time one of the nation’s largest self-contained mixed-use projects broke ground—the $2 billion, 138-acre Atlantic Station on the north edge of downtown that opened in 2005 and is still under construction—the trades could get very little share of the work.
Within three decades, as the region sprawled, the Atlanta trades went from building almost everything—from single-family homes to power plants—to constructing almost nothing.
Aware of the exclusionary history that had contributed to their decline, Atlanta’s building trades helped create a new organization to affirmatively recruit workers of color and women. TRADE-UP was created by the trades Council and Georgia STAND-UP, a labor-oriented nonprofit group. Its intensive eight-week program targets minorities, youth, women, and ex-offenders. Students are exposed to a wide range of apprentice-track opportunities, allowing each to find his or her occupational preference.
TRADE-UP graduates over 80 percent of its participants, enrolling about half in apprenticeship programs with the remainder going directly into the construction workforce, often with union-affiliated contractors. In 2013, it was cited by the U.S. Department of Labor as a national “best practice” program.
Progressive training reforms, however, are doing nothing to arrest Atlanta’s ruinous sprawl. The recent decision by the Atlanta Braves to leave the city for a massively subsidized new stadium in Cobb County, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s decision to move to suburban Dunwoody are recent high-profile examples of job sprawl.
Portland, Oregon: Trades Credit Growth Management for Their Resurgence
Touring Portland with Bob Shiprack in his pickup is like taking a class in labor and land use all at once. He’s the immediate past president of the Oregon State Building and Construction trades Council, an electrician by trade, and a retired state senator.
Shiprack draws a direct connection between Oregon’s Urban Growth Boundary legislation and the building trades’ resurgence there. In the same way Charlie Keys connects sprawl to decline and weakness, Shiprack links smart growth to recovery and strength.
Shiprack recalls how when he was young, Portland’s downtown suffered vacancies and abandonment. The trades grew weak as construction work in developing suburbs favored anti-union contractors. That all changed after the late 1970s, when the state enacted a statewide land use planning law, requiring every city or town to designate an Urban Growth Boundary, or UGB, outside of which farms and open space would be preserved. Today, 240 urban areas in Oregon have UGBs preserving rural lands while providing for gradual, well-planned growth.
The Portland UGB forced development away from the fringes and back downtown and into other neglected areas. The trades had strength from the mostly local contractors who won the work, and the urban work was more labor intensive than the sprawl: it was more vertical and often meant redevelopment (i.e., demolition before construction or gutting before rehabilitation) rather than new construction.
Portland-area residents reinforced the UGB benefits with smart regional planning and transit reforms. In 1979, they voted to create a three-county metropolitan planning organization (Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties). “Metro” serves 25 cities with 1.5 million residents and is the only MPO in the United States with directly elected leaders. Elections in these counties help educate voters about regionalism; a model of how to avoid “fractured governance” which is a root cause of sprawl. (The Chicago metro area, by contrast, has 1,250 local taxing bodies and sprawling, tax-base chaos.)
As downtown Portland recovered, the trades deployed their own workers’ capital. Areas like the Brewery Block and South Waterfront were jumpstarted with construction financing and equity investments from the trades’ pension funds. National vehicles such as the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust and Building Investment Trust, J for Jobs, and the Union Labor Life Insurance Company also invested, always stipulating that construction be 100 percent union.
Over time, almost half a billion dollars of Oregon building trades’ pension assets were invested in the Portland area, Shiprack explains, creating a virtuous cycle of good construction jobs generating retirement contributions, which in turn financed more construction. The pension funds still own numerous buildings in Portland, generating solid returns for retirement income as real estate rents and values appreciated thanks to Oregon’s UGB policy.
Portland also benefited from the region’s unified transit agency, TriMet, which was created to take over the service of five private bus companies in 1969. With the UGB creating higher population density, transit service became better-used and Tri-Met added four light rail lines, a commuter rail line, a trolley and downtown streetcar. Constructing this public infrastructure was mostly unionized, prevailing wage work.
But resurgent private construction is what really drove the trades’ recovery. More transit service begat more transit-oriented development, and the trades organized most of it. As the trades have in a handful of states, Shiprack’s member unions won the extension of prevailing wage coverage to private construction when it was subsidized by tax increment financing, or TIF, first in Portland then in state statute. “It was contentious at first with the mayor,” Shiprack recalls, “but we wanted all the jobs to be good jobs.”
Combining all these policies, the trades in Portland regained high density. The most recent survey for non-residential construction work in the three-county metro area found 59 percent being performed union, with more specialized crafts such as sheet metal workers (70 percent), plumbers and pipefitters (77 percent) and electricians (83 percent) even higher.
Portland’s transit renaissance is also creating factory jobs. When the streetcar plans were announced, a local steel-fabricating company, Oregon Iron Works, Inc., decided to enter the streetcar-manufacturing business, creating United Streetcar. Its first order, delivered in 2009 to the City of Portland, was the first U.S.-built streetcar in 57 years. United Streetcar’s workforce is represented by three building trades unions: the Ironworkers, Electrical Workers and Sheet Metal Workers.
For all the good news in Portland, looming across the Columbia River Gorge is an ugly reminder of what might have been. The building trades council for Portland also has jurisdiction over Vancouver, Washington and the surrounding counties. But when I asked Shiprack to cross over and show me that part of his domain, his upbeat voice grew taut: “That’s sprawlville over there. We have the convention center and not much else. You don’t want to go over there.”
Denver: Trades Change Course, Reap Benefits of Transit & TOD
In July 2002, the Colorado AFL-CIO organized a private day-long meeting of 20 labor leaders and 20 environmentalists. On the agenda: smart growth and renewable energy. The meeting had been carefully planned for nine months, but the atmosphere was tentative: less than two years earlier, the state labor federation had opposed the environmentalists, helping defeat a smart growth ballot initiative.
But now the Colorado AFL-CIO, together with the Denver Area Labor Federation—both with new leaders and their first female presidents—wanted to patch things up. To strengthen its policy reach, the Denver Federation had created a non-profit, the Front Range Economic Strategy Center (now FRESC for Good Jobs and Strong Communities).
One building trades leader attending that day was John Fleck, from Sheet Metal Workers Local #9; he would later serve as president of the Denver Federation and now runs Local #9’s apprenticeship program.
I helped the state federation plan the day and led the smart growth session. I presented maps I created for the Chicago Federation of Labor that showed that across many industries, as jobs thinned out geographically, they also de-unionized: This was true in groceries, health care, manufacturing, janitorial, and hospitality, among other sectors.
Next were Bob Balgenorth, then-president of the California building trades, and Tim Frank, founding chair of the national Sierra Club’s Challenge to Sprawl and a longtime California activist. Both spoke passionately about the trades’ history of fruitful cooperation with the Sierra Club.
Frank had enlisted the national Sierra Club to support the building trades in successful litigation when the Bush administration tried to ban federal monies for any project covered by a project labor agreement (PLAs provide for union construction, often at large, complex projects). He also emphasized that environmentalists need work done right in toxic clean-up projects and in the more complex construction associated with transit-oriented development.
Balgenorth emphasized the self-interest the California trades had in preserving union density in residential construction. Denser and better-planned projects, he argued, were more likely to attract unionized contractors; and homes being built with solar energy panels were creating lots of new work for Electrical Workers members in both installation and maintenance.
For Fleck and the other trades leaders, Balgenorth’s point about residential construction probably stung: the trades had been so strong in Denver that they even built most homes until the 1980s. Union density in construction was perhaps 90 percent as late as the 1970s in Denver, Fleck recalls, but then aggressively anti-union contractors set in. Before the meeting, trades leaders had identified residential construction—even larger multi-family projects—as their weakest market niche.
The day’s other half, whose topic was on renewable energy, detailed how well-positioned Colorado is to benefit from solar and wind-power development. It featured a presentation from the National Renewal Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado (the nation’s largest federal center for research on renewables and energy efficiency).
The day concluded with a consensus-building exercise. Four of the five issues that leaders agreed on were light rail, in-fill transit-oriented development, affordable housing, and renewable energy standards.
The meeting worked: in the state’s next election in 2004, organized labor joined environmentalists in winning two ballot initiatives: one to create the state’s first renewable portfolio standard and the other to fund FasTracks, a light rail system for the Denver metro area—the largest new system in the U.S. since the construction of Metro in the Washington DC area.
A veteran environmentalist who attended the meeting recalls it well even today, saying, “That meeting overall was a turning point, not only on growth issues, but also renewable energy, particularly with the building trades. Out of that meeting, the growth agenda was solved, especially the FasTracks work. It paid even greater dividends on renewable portfolio standards.”
Although the buildout of FasTracks has been slow and is not yet completed, it has created a great deal of work for building trades members, both directly and indirectly in construction stimulated along the routes. With the remodeling of Union Station, the surrounding area experienced a surge of high-density construction, much of it unionized. The southern part of Denver’s central business district has also enjoyed redevelopment.
John Fleck sees a clear benefit now to FastTracks, especially in the private TOD it is stimulating. “FasTracks is a shot in the arm for the regional economy,” he says, naming several more station areas that have experienced strong in-fill construction. The trades would have even more work today if they had joined with the pro-transit forces earlier, he believes. “We’re not Portland. We fight for every job we get,” said Fleck. “But we are getting work because of FasTracks.”
This article was made possible by a grant from the Surdna Foundation to allow Shelterforce to increase its focus on economic development topics. Good Jobs First’s writing and reporting for the article was supported by the Ford Foundation.