There are important discussions taking place in the state legislature about the future of New York City’s construction industry and especially its workers. We must not confuse sensible efforts to improve the construction industry with mandates that would exclude locally based workers of color and MWBE contractors from some of the city’s biggest projects.
For example, initiatives are being presented as progressive when in fact they are nothing more than thinly veiled efforts to hand lucrative opportunities to politically connected construction unions that still give the best jobs to workers who are more likely to be white and live outside New York City.
Of course, it was just weeks ago that a major construction union in New York City was sued in federal court by six of its minority members for racial discrimination and “manipulating the procedures for hiring” to ensure that “white operating engineers enjoy the best jobs and earn the most money.”
One particular area of concern exists around proposals to expand mandates for prevailing wage on certain large construction projects in New York City. Contrary to some misconceptions about what that means, this has nothing to do with ensuring a living wage for workers who are being underpaid. Rather, such initiatives would create a de facto mandate for developers to use union workers, rather than non-union workers who are more likely to be diverse and actually live in New York City. Additionally, these unnecessarily costly mandates would effectively prevent many smaller minority- and women-owned contractors—all of whom already pay their workers a living wage—from being able to participate on these major projects.
Let’s remember that per city data, close to 80 percent of private construction in New York City is now being done by open shop workers, who are not part of a union. And in today’s industry, open shop projects are far more likely to employ a racially diverse and locally based workforce. Around three quarters of workers at open-shop construction sites in New York City are either Black or Latino and live in the five boroughs.
The open shop also offers workers a living wage and competitive benefits—even if those workers are just entering the industry—to ensure they are on a real path to the middle class. With wages of at least $20 per hour, these jobs provide more income than entry-level work in retail or restaurants, and good health care packages and 401(k) programs ensure that workers are truly supported for the long term. These are the men and women who would lose good job opportunities if new construction prevailing wage legislation is passed.
There is nothing progressive about excluding Black and Brown workers and MWBE contractors from New York City’s construction industry just because they do not happen to be part of a union. If anything, it is regressive in the worst sense of the word.
State lawmakers who care about workers of color and MWBEs should find a path for improving the construction industry for everyone, not just politically connected special interests that still lack the level of diversity found in the open shop. That means continuing to respect the role of unions while also creating opportunities for thousands of locally based open shop workers who now represent the dominant labor force in today’s construction industry.
Simply put, state lawmakers should stop ignoring the voices of open shop construction workers of color and start including them in the legislative process. That would be the truly progressive thing to do.
Clark Peña is director of Advocacy for the Construction Workforce Project, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of open-shop and merit-based hiring in New York City’s construction industry.