Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Historic Preservation vs. Trade Unions

A large flatbed was parked across from San Francisco's City Hall at noon today as part of a protest by building and construction trade unions about implementation of Proposition J, an ordinance approved by voters last November creating a new Historic Preservation Commission.

Old-fashioned, conservative, protectionist trade unions are dying all over the country, with the U.S. auto industry being exhibit number one, and these guys (I didn't see a single female) are furious.

In the case of the "Historic Preservation Commission," however, their anger is seriously misplaced.

On a post by Rebecca Bowe at the San Francisco Bay Guardian Politics blog, the astute JoshB commented:
"Construction was my family's business, and anyone who thinks a preservation ordinance is going to cramp jobs (or is cramping jobs) is tripping. There are plenty of parking lots in this town... that's where new buildings are going up and where they should go up. Those aren't protected by any historic designations. Further, renovation of historic buildings is one of the more well-paying areas of the construction field. Let's check hot air against reality."


Your driver said...

Mike, I've been a trade unionist my entire adult life. I'm not in love with the construction trades or their union leadership.

When I was younger, I was an assembly line worker for Ford, Chrysler and GM. I worked with old timers who remembered the days before the union. It seems to me blatantly unfair to dismiss the small gains of the industrial unions as "old fashioned, conservative and protectionist." That ended up being the position taken by the UAW leadership, but there were huge battles fought against that position and the progressive and internationalist wing of the union never surrendered, we were simply driven out of the union. To anyone who followed union politics that opposition was active and highly visible until quite recently.

The construction trades function more like guilds than unions but I'd still rather see them continue than give the business of building over to the predators who are looking to destroy them.

Having said all of that, I'll have to admit that this little demo was creepy and stupid. Smarten up guys! We know you don't want to be turned into yuppies, but that's no excuse for acting like morons.

Civic Center said...

Dear Jon: Thanks for your spirited defense of "old-fashioned, conservative, protectionist" unions. I'm not as enamored of them because frankly all my experiences have been negative, both as a union member and somebody who has mostly worked freelance by his own wits.

There's an interesting article in the April 27th New Yorker by Peter Boyer about the U.S. auto industry in Detroit which goes into detail about the stupidity and greediness of both management and labor over the decades in Detroit, and why the Japanese auto manufacturing plants that started in the 1980s in the Southeast are managing to survive. Check it out. The history is fascinating, particularly as we're coming into a new world.

Your driver said...

Mike, I've been involved in acts of large scale solidarity that pretty much formed me as a person. As a very young man, I was in Harlan, Kentucky in 1974 and at the Dodge Truck Wildcat in Warren, Michigan shortly afterwards. What I saw then was like nothing else I've found in the modern workplace. I've also paid outrageous dues to corrupt union officers who gave nothing in return. I've been sold out and silenced by company men in union positions and I've banged up against "club" unionism that guarantees privileges for a favored few. Still, the struggle to experience those occasional moments of solidarity makes it all worth it.

Tomorrow is the start of campaigning for my friend, Mary. She's running for a minor union position, but she and I know about this stuff and the thought of her holding office is thrilling. I guess it's hard to explain.

Civic Center said...

Dear Jon: Actually, you've explained it very well. Thanks.

janinsanfran said...

Just want to throw in on the side of what JoshB says in your post.

I worked construction (mainly carpentry) in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s. Non-union, because I was "a girl" and they weren't open to women at the time. Happily, I had a quality apprenticeship from a former union carpenter/small contractor who had worked long and hard to get black men into the union and couldn't face the same struggle for women.

The kind of work created by historic preservation rules takes skill and imagnation. Lots of skill! The big contractors love demolishing buildings and starting over -- any gorilla will do for the labor. Even at union rates, those jobs make labor cheap. Running a more skilled job takes a lot more management capacity in addition to job skills. The margin is lower.

Unhappily, the union is propping up the big employers by going along with deskilling the labor. Meanwhile non-union (and usually non-white) contractors are winning the small jobs. Probably the rationalization of construction is inevitable, but we all lose when the unions serve as political muscle for the big guys.

FWIW I did an interview with a Minuteman that explores some of this.

Civic Center said...

Dear Jan: Good link from 2007. I don't remember leaving that comment on your post, but there it was. Hope you're doing well, Ms. Episcopal Construction Worker Political Organizer.

Anonymous said...

Like Jon, I was a union activist, in my case inside one of the most hidebound craft unions outside the building trades, namely a railroad "operating craft" "brotherhood." I think working people are always better off in even a crappy union than in no union at all. In the present case, though, as JoshB points out, that's not the choice; this really comes down to union jobs doing socially destructive work vs. union jobs doing the larger community some good. Part of my activism involved trying to get my union, and others in public transit (TWU, Amalgamated et al.) to take part in mass transit planning issues, not just stand-pat job protection but as a full member of the democratic system with a socially responsible program. Success was modest (and by modest I mean invisible) but I still believe that should be one of labor's goals. SEIU (warts and all) has been doing this with the issue of immigrant rights, and California Nurses' Association on single-payer; the building trades brothers (and janinsanfran is 100% right, they're still brothers) ought to get aboard, though I wouldn't bet on this happening soon.