Immigrants flooded California construction. Worker pay sank. Here’s why

Construction in Los Angeles has shifted from a heavily unionized labor force that was two-thirds white to a largely non-union one that is 70% Latino and heavily immigrant.

By Natalie Kitroeff

Carpenter Eddie Ybarra, left, makes $40 per hour as a union member. Francisco Martinez, right, makes $27.50 per hour as a non-union sheet metal worker. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Eddie Ybarra and Francisco Martinez, both in their 40s, work side by side building the walls of two of the newest condo buildings in downtown Los Angeles. They drive pickup trucks to work, park in adjacent lots and both take their lunch break around 10 a.m. That’s about all they share.

Ybarra, born in Los Angeles, has built a solidly middle-class lifestyle on more than two decades in the carpenters’ union, earning $40 an hour on top of a pension, healthcare and unlimited vacation days.

Martinez, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, works for a nonunion contractor, installing metal panels and other parts for $27.50 an hour. He doesn’t have retirement savings, his insurance doesn’t cover his family and he gets five vacation days per year.

The story of these two men illustrates the radical shift that has put construction front and center in the national debate over declining blue-collar jobs and President Trump’s views of immigration.

In the span of a few decades, Los Angeles area construction went from an industry that was two-thirds white, and largely unionized, to one that is overwhelmingly Latino, mostly nonunion and heavily reliant on immigrants, according to a Los Angeles Times review of federal data.

At the same time, the job got less lucrative. American construction workers today make $5 an hour less than they did in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation.

In 1972, construction paid today’s equivalent of $32 an hour, almost $10 more than the average private-sector job. But real wages steadily declined for decades, erasing much of that gap.

So who’s to blame?

Trump faults immigrants for taking Americans’ jobs and pushing down wages.

In an April speech, the president promised construction workers that he would “protect your jobs by protecting our borders.”

But for more than a decade before immigrants flooded the market, contractors and their corporate clients were pushing to undercut construction wages by shunning union labor.

Construction unions, focused on keeping their members happy and employed, fought to keep lucrative work building offices and highways instead of pouring money into recruiting masses of new workers. Nonunion shops made aggressive inroads into home building with workers who had less experience.

The result: Today slightly more than 1 in 10 construction workers are in a union, compared with 4 in 10 in the 1970s.

“Immigrants are not the cause of this, they are the effect,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist who has studied the history of construction in Southern California. “The sequence of events is that the de-unionization and the accompanying deterioration of the jobs come first, before immigrants.”

Of course, an influx of immigrants who would work for less made it easier for builders to quickly shift to a nonunion labor force, Milkman said. The share of immigrants in construction in California jumped from 13% in 1980 to about 43% today, according to a UCLA analysis of federal data.

Francisco Martinez had never been on a construction site before coming to the U.S. from Mexico in 1999. But he shadowed his brother-in-law at construction sites and copied what other people were doing.

He got a job working for Tinco Sheet Metal, a nonunion company, in 2001 and made $7 an hour, just over California’s minimum wage. Martinez clambered up the ranks and eventually his wife and children joined him in East Los Angeles.

Martinez first moved his family from a studio to a garage with two bedrooms, which he said “felt like a palace to me.” Now they live in a two-bedroom apartment, but he’s looking to buy a home after qualifying for a $400,000 loan.

He has no retirement savings — his company just started offering 401(k) accounts last year — but Martinez has a plan: He wants to start his own small contracting business.

He said he prefers this lifestyle to being in a union.

“They earn more, but they don’t have guaranteed work,” Martinez said. About five years ago, the sheet metal workers union tried to organize Tinco workers, but Martinez voted against it, like the majority of his co-workers.

A sheet metal foreman in the union gets paid around $47 an hour, but cannot work independently, outside of union-negotiated contracts.

Martinez makes much of his money on the side, often earning more than $500 in a day on jobs over the weekend and after regular work hours. He works with his brother, whom he persuaded to emigrate from Mexico a decade ago, and his 24-year-old son Javier.

Hart Keeble, business manager of the Ironworkers Local 416, tells the story of how construction unions lost ground.

Countless people in Martinez’s position have been lured into becoming their own bosses, quietly eroding the power of unions, says Hart Keeble, the business manager of the Reinforcing Ironworkers local 416, based in Southern California.

“What happened was, slowly, one contractor became nonunion … and picked up a couple workers, and somebody told him about their Mexican friends, and that was a model people adopted,” Keeble said.

And for a long time, building trades unions weren’t recruiting people like Martinez. The Ironworkers local, like many building trades unions, used to be an “old boys club,” Keeble said, where the unspoken rule was to only let in people related to current union members.

Members didn’t want to welcome tons of new people into the fold for fear that it might mean less work for them when building slowed down.

In the summer of 2005, when Las Vegas was going through a construction boom, Keeble advertised in local papers to fill 150 union apprenticeships over the course of a few months. He only got a handful of applicants. When he advertised in Spanish-language papers, he pulled in all the workers he needed.

The immigrant entrants shifted the balance of the local union from around 80% native-born Americans to half citizen, half immigrant. That didn’t sit well with many members; at a quarterly meeting for members later in the year, tensions ran so hot that a brawl broke out, Keeble said.

But it’s gotten harder and harder to recruit American-born workers to construction, Keeble said.

The Ironworkers union, whose members install the steel bars and cables that form the skeleton of a building, used to take in 300 apprentices from high schools across California every summer. Last summer they managed to pull in 80, Keeble said, partly because of waning interest in the job among high school students.

“Nobody is stealing anybody’s job, because nobody wants those jobs, especially for a nonunion employer,” Keeble said. “The trades are looked down on.”

Francisco Martinez, a nonunion sheet metal worker, works at a construction project in downtown Los Angeles. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

As home building collapsed in 2007 at the start of the financial crisis, hordes of people left the business.

Construction has since stormed back, and contractors complain that they can’t find enough skilled American laborers to handle their workload.

“Our industry has been de-glamorized over the past few years,” said Rick Judson, who chairs the board of the National Assn. of Home Builders, at a 2013 U.S. Senate hearing.

“Immigrant workers fill jobs that are currently going unfilled because the majority of Americans are over-qualified and are unwilling to take these jobs,” Judson said in written testimony.

In 2004, the NAHB and the Home Builders Institute started a program to teach prisoners in Illinois how to run pipes and electrical wires through a home. It is also working with state governments in Vermont and Massachusetts to introduce a training program for at-risk youth.

But the idea that Americans don’t want to get their hands dirty on a construction site — as some contend is the case with farm work — doesn’t ring true for Tom Brown, head of an engineering contracting firm in San Diego.

“Look at the heart of America, the coal workers and the miners,” he said. “People aren’t being honest when they say Americans don’t want it.”

Brown left his job as a union operator of heavy equipment in 1984 to start his own business, Sierra Pacific West Inc. At first he worked only with union tradespeople, but he soon switched to a nonunion labor force.

He said 90% of his employees are “good old redneck Americans” and the rest are immigrants. But in the last few years, Brown has had trouble hiring.

Before the housing crisis he had more than 200 employees; that’s down to 100 today. Many of his people simply retired, Brown said, and his remaining workforce is aging. The average age of a construction worker in the country is nearly 43 today, up from 36 in 1985, according to federal data.

Brown has had to turn a dozen applicants away, he said, “because they can’t pee in the bottle, they can’t pass a drug test” or “they may have had some bad luck or a criminal record [and] that’s a no-go for us.”

It’s been easier to pull in high school graduates for office jobs, such as estimating the costs of repairs to highways and other structures. But Brown is worried that teachers aren’t telling “book poor” kids that they might have a better shot at a livelihood if they tried learning a craft.

“It’s almost better to get a job at McDonald’s than to be a construction worker, that’s how it’s been portrayed,” Brown said.

Part of the problem is that employers aren’t eager to raise pay all that much. Even as home building shot up from 2011 to 2016, hourly wages for construction workers rose slower than average private-sector pay, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Maybe that’s why Eddie Ybarra can’t imagine why anyone would want to do his job without being in a union.

He dropped out of high school in 1989 and joined the carpenters union. Ybarra’s grandfather, father and four of his uncles were in the union before him. Five years ago, his 27-year-old son joined the union too.

“Where else can you make these kinds of wages, except in the union?” he asked.

Ybarra can take as many days of vacation as he wants this year, he says, thanks to his union negotiated vacation pay fund and the fact that he’s spent 28 years taking almost no time off. He has a pile of money in his pension and he plans to retire as soon as he turns 55, the earliest he can to recoup his entire savings.

“What are they going to do,” he said of nonunion tradesmen, “work for the rest of their lives? I don’t understand it.”

Times staff writer Ben Welsh contributed data analysis to this report. The analysis has been published as open-source software.


April 22, 2 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify Eddie Ybarra’s vacation benefit.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m., April 20.

Credits: Produced by Sean Greene. Graphics by Thomas Suh Lauder.