LA Unions Spur Needed Jobs

Waiting for a bus in the pre-dawn hours on his way to a construction job, Robbie Hunter would often stand frustrated as one, two and even three buses passed him by, too packed to stop as they plowed along Los Angeles’ congested streets.


You couldn’t depend on getting to a job site on time. If I wasn’t on the the freeway by 5 a.m., I couldn’t get to anywhere in downtown L.A. by 7 a.m.

He noted that construction workers who are late twice are summarily fired. Nor did his commute improve when he moved to the suburbs.

Now executive-secretary of the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, Hunter is helping spearhead one of the nation’s most innovative partnerships, one that addresses the nexus of southern California’s most critical needs: affordable transportation, good jobs and a way out of poverty for those most disadvantaged.

Working with a broad coalition of community groups, Los Angeles union leaders achieved passage of a $6.2 billion project labor agreement covering 17 transit projects and creating more than 23,400 middle-class career jobs over the next five years. The measure’s Construction Careers Policy, which opens wide the doors to community members looking for jobs, should help dispel the myth “that a union job is something [nonunion workers] don’t have access to,” says Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

The agreement, approved in January by the county metro transit agency, stipulates that 40 percent of workers hired are disadvantaged—including those who are homeless, lack a GED or high school diploma or are single parents. Over the next 30 years, the policy could cover up to $72 billion in projects and create 270,000 good construction careers.

The area’s labor movement pushed for its passage, together with community partners like the economic advocacy organization LAANE, the Black Workers Center and dozens of other groups with which unions have deep and long-term ties. Before the metro transit agency approved it, building construction trades unions and the L.A. labor federation pushed similar Construction Careers Policy agreements through the Los Angeles Unified School District, the City of Los Angeles and the Port of L.A.

Durazo says the Careers Construction Policy is

the most significant of its kind nationwide to create thousands of good jobs while investing in much-needed transportation infrastructure.

The policy sets out the terms of workforce employment that must be agreed to by all Metro contractors before they receive a contract to build projects and before they hire anyone.

Hunter sees strong public transportation as literally money in workers’ pockets. By saving workers the need for a second car, the $3,000 to $4,000 a year in auto-related expenses is “like getting a pay raise.”

The county’s overall unemployment rate is bad enough at 11.8 percent. But among construction workers, it’s much worse—40 percent—and Joseph Benjamin is among those without work. A 15-year member of the Electrical Workers (IBEW), Benjamin supports a 13-year-old daughter with asthma and has been without a regular job for months. He hopes the new agreement will provide him with sustained employment so he can continue health care for her and save for her college education.

As Benjamin says, the new agreement is essential because

union or nonunion, regardless, you have to have a living wage to support your family.

Yet not only did the measure pass at a time when most cities, counties and states are slashing budgets and decimating jobs and public services, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Agency had never before approved a project labor agreement, which is a pre-hire agreement between labor and management that requires all construction jobs be filled by local workers, ensures job safety is enforced and establishes wages and work rules for a fair, stable work environment. 

While the transit funding bill passed in a few minutes, it took years of hard work and strategic planning to get to that point.

In fall 2007, union leaders across Los Angeles, recognizing the city’s dire transportation needs, joined with community and business groups in a coalition ultimately called Move L.A. Spearheaded by former Santa Monica Mayor Denny Zane, the coalition drew its urgency from studies showing that an estimated 3 million more people will live in the county in the next 25 years, even as gridlock already is grinding the city to a halt.

Although Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa strongly supported transit improvements, he needed support to achieve results. As members of Move L.A., the unions of the Los Angeles County labor federation and building trades councils worked within the Latino and African American communities to gain support and build the type of partnerships that would last. Before putting a measure on the ballot to approve transit funding, the coalition had to get the state legislature’s approval for the county transit agency to approve the tax referendum. Then, coalition members needed to ensure the public passed the ballot measure by the required two-thirds vote.

Ultimately, county voters approved a half-cent tax hike—Measure R—by 67 percent, an action Zane and union leaders say points to the public’s willingness to approve tax increases when it’s clear how they will benefit. Measure R created $40 billion in transit funding over 30 years to create hundreds of thousands of jobs as well as an economic stimulus for Los Angeles.


I think what we’re witnessing here is the transformation of Los Angeles; ademocratic revolution.

While achieving such success required coalition-building, Durazo notes that it’s essential to work with coalition partners on an ongoing basis—and not just for one-time projects. “The key is that we work with each other on other issues in between” such big projects.  In short, Durazo says, unions must be “respectful of the community—and not just for turnout—and that respect will be reciprocated.”