Labor and Community: Not an Easy Marriage

by Maryann Leshin

The prospect of bringing together labor and community at the PN 1999 Conference brings to mind several critical discrepancies between the agendas of these two groups. I see labor and community from the perspective of someone who has worked for affordable housing and community development for the past two decades, a one-time union organizer, and the wife of a union organizer and activist. While I wholly support such a collaboration, and in fact view it as an ideal to strive toward, I’m pretty skeptical about it because of what I have seen in the San Francisco Bay Area. The issues that divide labor and community in practice are: prevailing wages, local hiring practices, NIMBY, and the unionization of nonprofits.

Prevailing Wages

Should nonprofit housing developers pay prevailing union wages, or should they be able to pay lower wages to help make housing affordable? This issue has lead to razor sharp conflict between unions and nonprofits. For affordable housing developers, their projects mean much needed housing, with the added bonus of creating construction jobs. However, if they pay the prevailing wage in the Bay Area, that adds 20-30% to the cost of building affordable housing. Prevailing wage can mean the difference between a project moving forward or going bust.The prevailing wage can be avoided if non-federal sources are used › this is more likely as federal funding declines. These new funding sources include tax credits, tax exempt bond financing, and local grants and loans for predevelopment and front end financing. And many local governments are more than happy to skirt state prevailing wage requirements.

Local Hiring Practices

Requirements that nonprofit builders hire local workers, low-income and homeless people may not be consonant with the union agenda for hiring, particularly in the building trades. Community housing developers are not tuned into the hiring hall ethic and don’t understand the process. To many of us it appears exclusionary. Yet there is so much opportunity here to expand the ranks of the union movement and at the same time meet larger community economic development goals. I haven’t seen it in the Bay Area (though there may be efforts underway or success stories that I personally haven’t heard about). This seems like a ripe area for joining labor and community with a win-win result. However, without a deliberate meeting of the minds of leadership from both sectors, efforts to move forward in this arena will likely get bogged down in petty fiefdom battles.


When it comes to affordable housing, I don’t think we can assume that the rank and file union agenda is necessarily opposed to NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) exclusionary sentiments. I worked for a city where the president of the fire fighters union advocated against making a loan to a nonprofit developer in his home town because of their work in converting a dilapidated, abandoned hotel into housing for people with disabilities (including AIDS and substance abusers). I believe the key issue for him was the prospect of declining property values. For union members with moderate incomes › a valid accomplishment › low-income housing can run counter to their interests as new property owners and the concomitant middle class values. Education on the subject of nonprofit low-income housing and its impact on property values would be a place to start. There are lots of opportunity for coalescing here. There are plenty of union members among the ranks of folks seeking affordable housing built by nonprofits, especially among health care workers, janitors, farm workers, teachers, and many public sector workers. It was a personal joy for me to know that a member of my husband’s union was purchasing a below market rate condo for first time home buyers built through the city program I developed! We need to articulate this commonality.

Unionization of Nonprofits

Few nonprofits support the notion of seeking out union labor or insist on using a union bug. Some do, but I have seen more that do not, and many that just provide lip service. This can create a wall between labor and community. In the Bay Area there have been a few battles over the unionization of nonprofits.
Unionization seems to be a dirty word in my world of nonprofit housing and community development. As my husband puts it, if management is treating folks right, they’re not going to want a union. Or as I think of it, if management is treating folks right, a union presents itself as no threat to continuing in that mode.

While the union movement’s electoral agenda is generally in sync with progressive planners, there are many defining “lines in the sand” which need to be confronted in an open way before just assuming that we’re all on the same page. I can’t say I have any easy answers, but until the two groups start talking to each other about these issues, understand why each takes specific positions, and find common ground, the notion of being part of one big happy left family is only an academic one.

Maryann Leshin lives in San Leandro, California, where she works for a nonprofit community development financial institution.

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