Putting Housing on the Unions’ Agenda

by Chris Baker, Annica Cooper, Sahyeh Fattahi, Paula Bingham Goldstein, Jimmy Gomez, Daniel Inlender, Jacqueline Leavitt, Erika Licon, and Paula Sirola

Union organizing around housing is barely a blip on the radar screen of unions in Southern California. Striking gains have been made in other organizing among immigrant workers, however. In this area, there have been city living wage ordinances, gains in the right to organize by the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), and protections for drywallers against unfair wage practices by contractors.

We recently took a modest step in raising awareness about the housing needs of low income workers and the potential of housing as an organizing tool. This past October at UCLA, the seven of us – five undergraduate honors students, a doctoral candidate, and a planning professor collaborated in a class, “Community Development From the Ground Up.” We had the following objectives: (1) create a pilot survey as a way to identify housing needs of low income workers in unions and their degree of interest about union involvement in housing; (2) research the continuum of housing services that unions provide in the U.S.; (3) investigate the experiences of labor involvement in other countries; and (4) bring labor and community-based housing groups together. 102 respondents were surveyed – 63 union and non-union workers at Farmer Johns and the remainder in the building trades.

Some survey responses were expected given the high housing costs in the metropolitan Los Angeles area and the increase in working poor even among full-time workers. Of 47 people who were renters, we found they pay a median gross rent of $640, or 38% of their income. Of 32 homeowners, the median gross housing cost was $940, or 36% of their income. Mapping where survey respondents live also produced unsurprising results. Workers earning the lowest wages live in zip codes where high percentages of other people have incomes below the poverty level.

More striking was the interest expressed by survey respondents to the questions about unions becoming involved in housing programs. About two-thirds said unions should pay a lot or some attention to housing. While the question seemed to surprise some people being interviewed, only seven flatly stated that housing should not be included in a benefits package and not be at all a union interest. In the presentation of our results to union and community organizers, we gave findings from other research, including a ladder of union participation in housing, moving from credit unions to nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs), to working with established community organizations to include housing in contract negotiations (as in Boston’s Local 26 of HERE). We also noted the activities of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust Fund, including the recent (1997) opening of a Western Regional Office. We summarized the arguments for union involvement in housing: wages are going down in real dollars while housing costs are going up; workers can’t find affordable housing near the workplace; housing benefits have the potential to provide greater value to workers than pay increases; and workers, when asked, ranked housing as one of their top concerns. The arguments against: asking too much when union membership is declining and unions are struggling to hold on to what they have; smaller unions find housing a risky financial investment; the labor movement shies away from a non-traditional area; it could spur an adverse reaction from management which translates into a backlash against labor unions; it could create an unfavorable public perception that unions are involved in areas where they do not belong; and the difficulty of taking on a complex task in which housing advocates have made limited progress to satisfy the need. Tipping the balance in favor of union involvement, there are powerful reasons for connecting union and housing organizing: the groups most in need of affordable housing include service workers, immigrants, women, people of color, households with children – the fastest growing segment of union membership. And by knowing where union workers are finding housing, opportunities exist for labor organizers to work both at the workplace and in the community, building coalitions around issues like housing.

Among the audience, the rep from the United Farm Workers (UFW) pointed out, as we had reported, their union’s pioneering work in setting up retirement housing in Delano, CA and limited equity housing in Ventura County. The union reps from Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers – who in the past year settled a ten-year struggle with Farmer Johns over union protection and who helped find most of the survey respondents – and a union representative from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), pointed to changes already occurring in the new labor movement, particularly the resources being put into both organizing and providing services. All present were enthusiastic about suggestions for a follow-up forum, bringing area organizers in labor and housing together with representatives from the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust Fund. They wanted to find out more about the organization (with assets close to $1.85 billion) and learn about the Trust’s new investment initiatives. They supported the idea of continuing the research and meetings with members to discuss the pros and cons of union involvement in housing, and exploring the various ways in which credit unions function, including requirements and ease of access. Given the role unions played in achieving a dramatic electoral change in California, the responsiveness of union members to the pilot survey, and the progressive orientation of many in the new labor movement in Southern California, housing could become more than a minor item on the union agenda. It could become a fruitful area for organizing and a means of mutual education between labor and housing advocates.

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