Public Works Legislation: Critical in increasing economic mobility for Black workers

6/13/2019, 1:16 p.m.
The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) has long been a progressive voice within the American labor movement, advocating for ...
Construction worker Kevin Utting/Flickr

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) has long been a progressive voice within the American labor movement, advocating for the fair and just treatment of Black workers across sectors. CBTU is unrelenting and unapologetic in our mission to ensure the labor movement is responsive to the needs of Black workers. We also work tirelessly to raise the floor for all Black workers, whether union or nonunion.  Therefore, our support for A1261/ S1947, legislation clearly defining public work, should come as no surprise to those who know us and are aware of the ideals that guide us.

The public works legislation pending before the New York State Legislature is clearly in line with the mission statement of CBTU. Requiring prevailing wages be paid to construction workers on publicly subsidized projects is a commonsense solution that addresses an epidemic in New York State. New York has for too long been in the business of dispersing public funds to create poverty level jobs that do nothing to uplift communities of color. This bill will create a pipeline for Black workers to have greater economic opportunities, including the potential to earn the prevailing wages and benefits they deserve and have long been denied.

The public works bill will benefit Black men and women working in the construction industry in a multitude of ways. Although the legislation is not a union mandate, it creates increased opportunities for Black workers to earn higher wages, and in some cases join a union. A 2017 Economic Policy Institute study highlighted the benefits unions provide to Black workers, citing Black workers in the unionized sector make on average $5 more an hour than their nonunion counterparts. Additionally, Black workers are chronically underrepresented in the nonunion construction sector, representing only 18.8 percent of the total workforce, compared to 21.2 percent in the unionized construction workforce. Moreover, construction unions are continuing to make strides, nearly doubling the number of Black apprentices in their training programs over the past 20 years. The public works bill will serve to further increase opportunities for Black men and women in accessing higher paying jobs in the construction industry, as well as in the unionized construction trades.  

Providing a comprehensive definition of public work is critical in creating greater economic mobility for Black workers. We call on the legislature to pass A1261/ S1947 promptly. Our communities have waited too long for the wages and job opportunities they deserve.

Terrence Melvin is the president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.