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Did the LA Trades drop the ball?

The LA Times reports that Immigrants flooded California construction. Worker pay sank. Here’s why

Posted on
Apr 20, 2017

Thanks to trades unions failing to organize small projects and immigrants, the trades has lost ground in the Los Angeles construction industry. This has allowed a generation of immigrants to learn the trade without the unions help.  Now there is a building boom and supposedly American’s don’t want those jobs, so immigrants are continuing to fill them and work non-union. The following piece is well written but a hard read, especially if you work within the trades, but it is hard to dispute the facts.

Eddie Ybarra and Francisco Martinez, both in their 40s, work side by side building the walls of two of the newest condo buildings in downtown Los Angeles. They drive pickup trucks to work, park in adjacent lots and both take their lunch break around 10 a.m. That’s about all they share.

Ybarra, born in Los Angeles, has built a solidly middle-class lifestyle on more than two decades in the carpenters’ union, earning $40 an hour on top of a pension, healthcare and unlimited vacation days.

So who’s to blame?

Trump faults immigrants for taking Americans’ jobs and pushing down wages.

In an April speech, the president promised construction workers that he would “protect your jobs by protecting our borders.”

But for more than a decade before immigrants flooded the market, contractors and their corporate clients were pushing to undercut construction wages by shunning union labor.

Construction unions, focused on keeping their members happy and employed, fought to keep lucrative work building offices and highways instead of pouring money into recruiting masses of new workers. Nonunion shops made aggressive inroads into home building with workers who had less experience.

The result: Today slightly more than 1 in 10 construction workers are in a union, compared with 4 in 10 in the 1970s.

“Immigrants are not the cause of this, they are the effect,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist who has studied the history of construction in Southern California. “The sequence of events is that the de-unionization and the accompanying deterioration of the jobs come first, before immigrants.”

Of course, an influx of immigrants who would work for less made it easier for builders to quickly shift to a nonunion labor force, Milkman said. The share of immigrants in construction in California jumped from 13% in 1980 to about 43% today, according to a UCLA analysis of federal data.

Francisco Martinez had never been on a construction site before coming to the U.S. from Mexico in 1999. But he shadowed his brother-in-law at construction sites and copied what other people were doing.

He got a job working for Tinco Sheet Metal, a nonunion company, in 2001 and made $7 an hour, just over California’s minimum wage. Martinez clambered up the ranks and eventually his wife and children joined him in East Los Angeles.

Martinez first moved his family from a studio to a garage with two bedrooms, which he said “felt like a palace to me.” Now they live in a two-bedroom apartment, but he’s looking to buy a home after qualifying for a $400,000 loan.

He has no retirement savings — his company just started offering 401(k) accounts last year — but Martinez has a plan: He wants to start his own small contracting business.

He said he prefers this lifestyle to being in a union.

“They earn more, but they don’t have guaranteed work,” Martinez said. About five years ago, the sheet metal workers union tried to organize Tinco workers, but Martinez voted against it, like the majority of his co-workers.

A sheet metal foreman in the union gets paid around $47 an hour, but cannot work independently, outside of union-negotiated contracts.

Martinez makes much of his money on the side, often earning more than $500 in a day on jobs over the weekend and after regular work hours. He works with his brother, whom he persuaded to emigrate from Mexico a decade ago, and his 24-year-old son Javier.

Martinez, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, works for a nonunion contractor, installing metal panels and other parts for $27.50 an hour. He doesn’t have retirement savings, his insurance doesn’t cover his family and he gets five vacation days per year.

The story of these two men illustrates the radical shift that has put construction front and center in the national debate over declining blue-collar jobs and President Trump’s views of immigration.

In the span of a few decades, Los Angeles area construction went from an industry that was two-thirds white, and largely unionized, to one that is overwhelmingly Latino, mostly nonunion and heavily reliant on immigrants, according to a Los Angeles Times review of federal data.

At the same time, the job got less lucrative. American construction workers today make $5 an hour less than they did in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation.

In 1972, construction paid today’s equivalent of $32 an hour, almost $10 more than the average private-sector job. But real wages steadily declined for decades, erasing much of that gap.