Michael Theriault headshot

The San Francisco Chronicle has amplified the role of Chinatown in the election of Aaron Peskin to the Board of Supervisors from District 3. A close look at the numbers shows that this role was mixed, with some precincts going for Peskin and others for our and the mayor’s endorsed candidate, Julie Christensen. Nob Hill more solidly supported Peskin, who had the endorsement of the landlords of the San Francisco Apartment Association; and so another grotesque wrinkle in San Francisco’s bizarre form of “Progressivism.”

But there is no contesting the importance overall of Chinese-American voters in the City.

The Mayor, the Assessor, both State Assembly members, and all three members of the Board of Supervisors representing the West Side are Chinese-American.

The Building Trades began their history in San Francisco in outright hostility to Chinese-Americans. This newspaper’s first editor, Olaf Tveitmoe, himself an immigrant, railed in it not just for the renewal of laws excluding the Chinese, but for their extension to the Japanese. Over almost a century this hostility waned only slowly, and some Chinese-American contractors still active have recounted being refused by unions early in their careers the opportunity to become signatory.

When Mayor Ed Lee first arrived in the City from Seattle and Maine and began work as an attorney advocating for the Chinese-American community, he certainly heard this.

As our work moves out from areas where allowable heights make steel or poured-in-place construction necessary or preferable, and into areas whose height limits make stick-frame or stick-frame-on-podium more practical and economical, it moves also into scales and types of construction for which a non-union contractor base is available here and dominant not far away.

These areas of lower heights include the West Side. The basic single-family composition of West Side neighborhoods is unlikely to change in any of our lifetimes, but the City is already debating “density bonuses” that will permit slightly greater building heights along such transit corridors as Geary Boulevard in exchange for binding commitments to make a certain proportion of the additional residential units affordable to middle-class workers such as ourselves.

If we are retain our presence and influence in the City, we will need this type of development. At the same time, it will help us less if we are not building it.

Many West Side residents have already objected to density bonuses. The West Side’s Chinese-American community, with its tradition of different generations of growing families trying to live close by each other – if not in fact together – could be a natural ally in the effort to obtain political approval of them. The more its members and businesses are tied to us, the more likely it is to ally with us also in keeping the work ours. Its election of all three West Side Supervisors from its ranks make it key to this effort.

It can help us also to ensure that the growing investment by China in the City creates jobs for us and not for our non-Union competition.

We are certainly on better terms with this community than we were even a generation ago. We have many Chinese-American members and contractors. We still suffer from our history of exclusion, however, and there persists a substantial body of non-union Chinese-American contractors and workers, with close ties to the very community we will need as an ally.

And so I am often frustrated to hear, when I ask Business Representatives or organizers what the workers of a Chinese-American contractor have to say about their wages, benefits, or conditions, “Nobody speaks English.” Chinese monolingual workers have been building parts of this City almost since it expanded beyond the village of Yerba Buena, in the heart of what is now Chinatown. In more than a century and a half, if we have been serious about organizing across the industry, and not just in pockets of it, we might well have learned to communicate with them.

Of course a particular Business Representative or organizer might not have the language skills for this.

We can understand even that union locals that have become more regional than San Franciscan, with leadership that often as a result has no roots here, might not recognize the importance of a Chinese bi- or trilingual (Mandarin, Cantonese, English) capability in its staff. Chinese-American influence is strong only in the City and a very few suburbs.

But the City remains a primary economic driver in the region and gives the Trades a disproportionate share of their work.

If San Francisco is to endure as the center of West Coast and even national labor strength it has long been, we must acquire that language capability, whether through the hiring of bi- and trilingual Business Representative or organizers, through hiring office staff that can translate on the phone for field staff, or through finding translation services, perhaps in cooperation with other unions.

We can then have a much better chance of building the homes that will keep us in San Francisco in alliance with the Chinese-American community, because we will have the tools to become more a part of that community, and to make it more a part of us.

Organized Labor


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