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Building trades unions provide specialized training, negotiate living wages, and create local opport


Initially, the pressure to go to college overshadowed Santa Maria High School 2016 graduate Lizbeth Hernandez’s true passion.

She attended Fresno State University after high school, but, “It didn’t work out,” she said. “I knew college wasn’t going to be great for me. It just didn’t seem that I wanted it.”

Now, she’s an apprentice at the local electrician’s union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 413

SPECIALTY EQUIPMENTU.A. Local 114 has specialized pipe trades equipment to teach its apprentices a variety of plumbing, pipe fitting, and pipe welding skills.


Hernandez first became interested in the trades after participating in agricultural mechanics competitions in high school. This experience led her to speak with Brian Gregory, membership development representative at IBEW 413, at a career fair her senior year. 

“It seemed right,” Hernandez said of joining the union. “But I was caught up in the whole, ‘You have to go to college.’”

After the experience at Fresno State, Hernandez decided to follow her original inclination and apply for the union. 

“I ended up getting in, and it was honestly the best decision I’ve ever made. I enjoy my work, I enjoy class, and I actually feel comfortable,” Hernandez said. “Personally, I’m upset that I didn’t go [into the union] out of high school, because I could have been almost done with my apprenticeship.”

Michael Lopez, business manager at the local pipe trades union, UA 114, calls this pressure to go to college “the big lie”: the false idea promoted by the American education system that a four-year degree is the only path to a successful career. 

But Lopez said this is just one of a slew of challenges that building trades unions are facing locally.  

The percentage of private construction workers who are unionized in California saw a steady decline in the ’90s and early 2000s, according to data from the Union Membership and Coverage Database. In more recent years, the percentage has stagnated around 15 to 18 percent, as compared with 25 percent in 1990.

One might assume that the overall decline and stagnancy of statewide union building trades reflects less interest in the union itself. But according to Lopez, the opposite is true, at least locally.

“There’s never, in the 25 years that I’ve been in a trade, been a shortage of people who want to get into the building trades,” Lopez said. “That’s not what the problem is.”

In Lopez’s opinion, the problem is that “this community, Santa Barbara County as a collective, doesn’t support us.”

Gregory calls it “anti-union animus”: a negative attitude toward the organized labor movement, especially from the people who want wages set without union interference. 

Union advocates like Lopez and Gregory argue that their workers, though perhaps more costly, provide a better overall value with their work. Furthermore, they say, unions keep jobs local and ensure a wage that workers can live and retire on—namely because they’re the ones negotiating it.

However, some companies opt not to sign contracts with unions, such as Jack’s All-American Plumbing, and several municipalities, like the city of Santa Maria, prefer not to get wrapped up in project labor agreement policies. Jack’s Director of Operations Josh Bingham said his company is having difficulty finding enough skilled workers—something that union-minded individuals think could be alleviated by more apprenticeship opportunities. 

Unfriendly environment

From Lopez’s perspective, he “should have three times the number of apprentices” at UA 114. But his union is limited in how many apprentices it can bring on, based on the number of signatory contractors they have. 

Signatory contractors are the companies that sign agreements with trades unions promising to honor negotiated wages. According to Lopez, out of nearly 200 contractors that do plumbing and pipefitting in Santa Barbara County—which include one-man shops—just a handful are union contractors. There are also contractors from outside the area that bid and win local work and are committed to contracting and hiring local union workers for their jobs, Lopez said.

Building trades union apprentices learn both on and off the job. At UA Local 114, apprentices work 40 paid hours a week and learn the theory behind their trade in evening classes. 

That’s why the number of signatory contractors impacts how many apprentices a union can take on: The program is designed around learning on the job, so the union needs enough signatory contractors for all of its apprentices. 

Lopez attributes the lack of local signatory contractors in part to a tendency toward “fiscal conservatism” in Santa Barbara County. In other words, companies are wary of being contractually obligated to employ union workers, who negotiate their wages with employers. And it’s not just companies. Lopez said that city of Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo is the only mayor in Santa Barbara County who he considers to be pro-union labor.

“The culture here has just never been friendly to the trade unions,” Murillo told the Sun. “I think the construction companies here and the contractors here didn’t want that kind of structure, where … trade unions are given preference to the jobs.”

Balancing benefits

Because union members negotiate their pay—which, for the workers, is a major draw of organized labor—union wages are inevitably higher than those of non-union workers.

As of May 2019, the average wage for plumbers and pipefitters in the Santa Maria-Santa Barbara metropolitan area was about $30 an hour, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those statistics, it should be noted, include union wages, which bring the average up.

Lopez said his journeymen (apprenticeship program graduates) make a total package of about $76 an hour. He explained that this number includes their actual wage—about $51 an hour in taxable income—plus the value of their benefits, which include insurance, a pension, and training. 

That wage and benefit package follows workers even if they switch employers, because it’s what contractors commit to when they sign with the union.

At IBEW 413, journeymen electricians make about $44 an hour, Gregory said, plus a full family-plan benefit package that brings the hourly wage up to about $66. That compares with a $28 hourly wage for the average electrician in the Santa Maria-Santa Barbara metropolitan area, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. 

But for some companies, entering into union contracts and committing to negotiated wages isn’t the route they choose to go. For Santa Maria-based Jack’s All-American Plumbing, a relationship with local unions simply wasn’t woven into the founding fabric of the company.

“It’s really based off of Jack’s experience when he got into the trade,” Bingham said. “He started working for a company. They were not union, so he really didn’t have any experience with that. Then when he went out on his own, he just followed the model he was used to.”

From Lopez’s perspective, the value of his union tradesmen makes their labor costs worth it.

“In the state of California, there is no training required for you to put a shingle in front of your door and say, ‘I’m a plumber,’” Lopez said. 

This isn’t to say that non-union plumbing companies don’t require some sort of training, education, or prior experience for their employees. Bingham said that at Jack’s, they specifically look for workers with a strong aptitude to learn, even if they don’t have the most experience, and then implement on-the-job training. 

Lopez said that non-union companies aren’t mandated to train in the pipe trades—so when they do, it’s not state-regulated. 

Because they’re state-sanctioned, union apprenticeships must partner with a host school for things like grading and bookkeeping, Lopez said. For the local pipe trades and electrician unions, it’s Allan Hancock College.

Hancock Superintendent and President Kevin G. Walthers explained how the partnership works.  

“They’re the independent union shops. We work with their experts and certify them as faculty,” Walthers said. “For those programs, all of our students are always at their sites in Buellton. We don’t teach any of those classes here on campus.” 

The hands-on classroom experience happens at the union facilities—the county’s pipe trades and electrical workers unions are located in Buellton—where all the specialized equipment lives.  

“We have pipe fitting equipment, we have a full welding lab here, we have the ability to do copper braising and jetting,” Lopez said. “Two or three years ago, the union decided to invest in service and repair training. We got $250,000 worth of training modules, specifically oriented to service and repair plumbing. We really put our money where our mouth is as far as training. All of that is paid out of membership dues.”

Each year, Lopez said, his apprentices spend around 1,500 to 2,000 paid hours learning on the job, plus 200 hours of classroom training, for all five years of the apprenticeship program.

With all the training and classroom time that goes into making an apprentice into a journeyman, Lopez said he feels that the average person doesn’t understand the value of a union-trained worker. 

“Probably the biggest thing for us is trying to get the general public to understand the choices that they’re making. There’s no way I’m going to stand here and tell you we’re going to be the cheapest guy on the block,” Lopez said. “But you have to look at the value of sending somebody out who’s specifically trained. It’s a five-year apprenticeship program with a specific state-sanctioned curriculum and entrance exams. Apprenticeship means something.”

A wage that works

As Lopez points out, building trade union laborers aren’t “the cheapest guy on the block.” But he believes that a union wage is necessary in Santa Barbara County, and Gregory from the electrical workers union agrees.

The cost of living in Santa Barbara County, Gregory believes, is too high for many non-union trade laborers to support themselves, which he thinks could be contributing to skilled labor shortages. Anecdotally, he’s noticed it in the local demand for electricians.

“We have no shortage of people that want to be apprentices, but whether there’s a worker shortage is a different question,” Gregory said. “If you look on Craigslist you see lots of advertisements for electricians. … It does look like there might be a worker shortage when I see how many ads are out there from non-union companies.”

IN THE CLASSROOMBuilding trades apprentices get a mixture of on-the-job experience and classroom training. Here, pipe trades apprentices sit in class at U.A. Local 114.


Bingham from Jack’s All-American Plumbing attested to this reality. 

“There is a definite shortage in really all of the skilled trades,” Bingham said. “I’ve heard of many construction companies having trouble finding work[ers].”

An underlying problem, Bingham believes, is that the local economy is “more of an employee’s market than an employer’s market.”

Bingham explained that, locally, it’s relatively easy for skilled workers to become employers themselves, or open up a one-man shop, which could contribute to fewer employees in the hiring pool. 

“With trades, if you’re really good and want to go out and have your own company, that’s not too hard to do nowadays,” Bingham said. “Some people want to control their own destiny.” 

While being a union contractor may take away some of an employer’s autonomy, Gregory argues that it’s worth the benefits. One such benefit, he said, is how easy it is for employers to get more workers the moment they need them.

“When a member is out of work—say a job is completed—they come to the union hall and sign the out-of-work list. Then when a union employer has a job, they call the hall. That call goes to whoever is next on the book. … What’s great about it is the employer is not on Craigslist or anything: They just put in a call one day, and the next day a qualified electrician shows up.”

While non-union contractors must acquire workers through traditional routes, Gregory said, the unions “take a pool of workers and a pool of employers, and put them together. … It’s run by the workers, for the benefit of the workers.”

Underlying factors

A phrase that you’ll commonly hear in the union world is “project labor agreement,” or PLA. A PLA is a collective bargaining agreement that establishes the employment terms and conditions for all workers on a construction project, both union and non-union. The agreement is negotiated between the union and the institution facilitating the project, such as a city, county, school district, or college.

Public works projects—those paid in whole or part by public funds—are common among municipalities and schools.   

Typically, people employed on public works projects must be paid what’s called “prevailing wage.” There are different prevailing wage requirements at the federal and state level, but Lopez explained that those in California are usually based on rates agreed upon through collective bargaining—in other words, union wages. 

What’s beneficial about establishing a PLA with prevailing wages, Lopez said, is that all workers on the project get paid the union wage. And from his perspective, a union wage isn’t just higher than average, it’s a living wage.

California also demands that 20 percent of the total hours in a prevailing wage project be performed by apprentices registered in a state-recognized program. 

“The state of California has the intelligence to understand that a commitment to 20 percent is building the workforce of the future,” Lopez said.

But project labor agreements in the county are scarce when compared with other parts of the state.

GIVING BACKLizbeth Hernandez, current IBEW 413 apprentice, first learned about the local electrician union at her high school career fair. Now, she’s the one recruiting new apprentices at the career fair


“PLAs are very common—except for here,” Gregory said. “We’re really behind here in Santa Barbara County.” 

As a result, Lopez said, local folks aren’t guaranteed spots on large construction projects. 

The city of Santa Maria’s public works projects, as required, pay prevailing wages. But the city doesn’t have a project labor agreement policy, Mayor Alice Patino told the Sun, because of cost factors. 

“You have to pay attention to the taxpayers’ money,” said Patino. “When you have a PLA, it increases the cost of building.” 

Shari Brunner, executive manager at the Central Coast chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, said she doesn’t believe that PLAs are a common cause of construction cost increases, since prevailing wage is going to be paid on public works projects regardless.

“Everyone has to pay prevailing rates, which are our rates anyway,” Brunner said. “If a non-union contractor wins the bid, that’s not a problem, because we know we bid with them on a level playing field.”

Building affordable housing is another type of project that sometimes falls under prevailing wage requirements, since these projects can receive federal or state funding. Some feel that prevailing wages make building affordable housing more costly.

“It’s hard for us,” said John Fowler, president and CEO of Peoples’ Self-Help Housing. “Obviously we think people ought to be paid a fair wage. That’s part of what we believe.”

But prevailing wages are so high, Fowler said, that they can “add about 30 percent to a project’s cost. That’s a significant increase to build something.”

Different studies reveal wildly different conclusions about how much prevailing wage impacts California residential construction cost. 

As Liam Dillon wrote in a 2017 LA Times article, The California Institute for County Government finds that prevailing wages add 11 percent to a project’s cost, while Beacon Economics says it’s 46 percent. Smart Cities Prevail says that prevailing wages don’t increase costs at all “when taking into account increased worker productivity and savings from decreased public subsidies.”

Either way, some people think it’s just another obstacle to building affordable housing that should be removed. 

Rob Wiener, executive director of the California Coalition for Rural Housing, was quoted in Dillon’s article.

“We have the worst affordable housing crisis we’ve ever had in the state. We should be trying to find ways to reduce the cost of building housing,” he told the LA Times.

But, Dillon points out, “prevailing wage advocates, chiefly the building trades, have made an argument that has resonated with lawmakers: No one who builds affordable housing should earn so little that they need affordable housing themselves.”

Providing opportunity

There are a handful of Santa Barbara County politicians who are vocal about addressing union concerns. Santa Barbara Mayor Murillo said that she and Santa Barbara City Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez are particularly pro-labor.

"If the city voters know that we’re pro-labor candidates, and they vote us in, then they’re supportive of that kind of systemic change, where our big-ticket construction projects create jobs for our local families,” she said. “We’re on the cusp of doing it here.”

GIVING BACKLizbeth Hernandez, current IBEW 413 apprentice, first learned about the local electrician union at her high school career fair. Now, she’s the one recruiting new apprentices at the career fair


Murillo said that right now, Santa Barbara city administration is negotiating a project labor agreement policy with the Tri Counties Building & Construction Trades Council. The agreement, if approved, would mean that any construction project greater than $5 million would be a project labor agreement construction project.

The next big public works project on the horizon for the city is a new police station, and Murillo said she “wants a project labor agreement in place for that particular project.”

What underlies the frustrations from union and non-union trade folks alike is the attitude our society perpetuates toward the trades as a viable career option in the first place.

Murillo said she wants to make sure that local youth, especially those from working-class families, know that trade careers are not just an option, but a financially smart one, especially if they’re making a living wage.

“Say a young person has discovered that they’re really good with their hands, or has a knack for construction work. Then they’re perfect for an apprenticeship,” she said.

This was true for Santa Maria High School grad and IBEW 413 apprentice Hernandez. 

“College isn’t necessarily the path for everybody right out of high school,” State Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) told the Sun.

Cunningham is part of a bipartisan group of state legislators who want California high schools to get the funding they need for career technical education programs, like the one that led Hernandez to her passion.

In 2018, Cunningham and others pushed Gov. Jerry Brown to commit $300 million in funding toward career technical education in the state budget, which Cunningham said was a big win. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May revise this year proposed some large cuts to the Career Technical Education Incentive Grant in the state budget. But after Cunningham and other legislators spoke out in opposition to the cuts, the adopted budget ended up preserving the program’s funding. 

Budgets aren’t permanent, Cunningham said, and legislators must continue actively fighting to keep “hard fought wins,” like the grant, included. 

“I see it every day in my district. It changes people’s lives,” Cunningham said of career technical education. “It makes a big impact on our economy, and gives kids opportunity.”

For Lopez, that’s what it’s all about: providing opportunity.

“You can argue, ‘Union-yay, union-nay.’ That’s all cool. But one of the things that’s really hard to be negative about is apprenticeship programs,” he said. “Just because you’re not going to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to have a decent life.” 

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at 

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