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.