Modular construction has long been a dream of developers. Any business looks to reduce labor costs wherever possible. As inadequate as our wages may be to us in the Trades in this costliest of places to live, to many a business we are an expense that should be reduced.
Modular construction takes much of the work the Building Trades have long done on construction sites – up to eighty percent, by some estimates – and moves it to factories. It can deliver a product framed, piped, wired, rocked, painted, floored, and fitted with cabinets. As in any manufacturing, factories can be located anywhere – elsewhere in the state or the country, or even overseas. Construction can be uprooted from the communities where it will go, and the communities’ workers shaken off the roots like so much spent dirt.
In San Francisco, this has already begun.
In 2013 developer Patrick Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests built a twenty-three unit residential building at 38 Harriet Street in the South of Market using modules manufactured by ZETA Communities at a factory in the McClellan Business Park in Sacramento. More recently Cannon Constructors used ZETA modules in the construction of 136 residential units at 5880 Third Street.
Workers at ZETA’s Sacramento factory are represented by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. This makes ZETA an exception among modular home manufacturers; I do not know of any other that is union-signatory.
Even so, workers at ZETA earn considerably less than their counterparts on construction sites in San Francisco.
Now Patrick Kennedy is proposing to import modules from China, where wages are, of course, much lower still. He is pitching import of modules to address the City’s ongoing problems with homelessness.
The solution to homelessness cannot be shipping Building Trades jobs to China.
We cannot oppose prefabrication just because of what it is. We can and do oppose it if it unnecessarily takes away our jobs or undercuts our wages.
We have told the Mayor and developers that we will fully support establishment of modular construction manufacturing facilities in the City, if it honors our wages, benefits, and craft lines. If the purpose of modular construction is efficiency and environmental responsibility, as its proponents claim, and not the undercutting of wages and the avoidance of a union-represented local workforce ready to stand up for itself, as we suspect, then modular manufacturing in the City is an ideal solution.
The Carpenters have understood this and have brought ZETA representatives to talk to the San Francisco Building Trades, and some of our Business Representatives have toured ZETA’s factory. We and ZETA had hopes of establishing a new ZETA factory in a vacant building at the former Hunters Point Shipyard, but discussions between ZETA and the Hunters Point developer, Lennar, came to nothing.
Mayor Lee has assured us that he, too, understands the value that the Building Trades bring to San Francisco. He knows well the efforts we have made to bring residents of the City’s underprivileged communities into our apprenticeships and to give them careers. He sees that a shift to modular construction threatens those careers. His staff has told us that they are exploring possible sites for modular manufacturing on Port land.
But modular manufacturing is not an issue just for the Trades and the communities from which we draw members.
We are an old close-packed tinderbox of a wooden city in one of the most seismically active regions of the world. The twin hazards of fire and earthquake demand that we take utmost care in housing ourselves.
We believe in American workers, no matter where in the state or country they live. We also do not at all question the skill and dedication of Chinese workers. We have taken enough of them into our ranks here to know that they possess both plentifully. We do question the motives of the business masters of both American and Chinese workers, just as we so often question the motives of developers here. Here we recall well the quality control issues in both American and Chinese manufacture of components of the Bay Bridge’s signature span. Close inspection of any step in manufacture that may be concealed on delivery is well warranted.
The inspectors of the City’s Department of Building Inspection are our guardians. They know not just the building code, but the City.
At minimum, they should be present at all steps in manufacture up to finishes. Even for finishes, their presence during application would ensure that methods and materials potentially hazardous to eventual residents are not being used.
And if the City’s own inspectors are present to protect us, as well they should be, the City itself should not bear the expense. Developers, who will supposedly reduce their expenses by modular construction, should bear any additional costs.
The Building Trades can welcome modular construction to San Francisco if it is locally made, with locally standard wages and benefits, and locally inspected. The City itself needs and deserves no less.