When it comes to getting work for projects that require the prevailing wage, such as construction projects funded by public money, the union worker has the inside track on getting that work. However, as more private developers start to pour money into New York City, the battle between the union and non-union worker is starting to heat up. At the core of the issue is construction wages, but there are other reasons why being a non-union construction worker in New York City may be a bad idea.
Unions And Non-Unions Then And Now
In the 1950s, it was estimated that one out of every two construction workers in New York City belonged to a labor or skilled trade union. Back then, union shops were responsible for doing approximately 35 percent of all of the privately funded work offered throughout the five boroughs.
From June 2014 to June 2015, union workers clocked 13 percent less hours and that number keeps dropping. As unions slowly lose their position as the primary source of construction laborers in New York City, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York released a study using independent numbers to show the downside of being a non-union worker. The timing of the report was questioned as a battle rages over forcing every construction worker to go through an apprenticeship program to work on projects 10 stories and higher, but the information is hard to ignore.
The Changing Make-Up Of The NYC Work Forces
In the 1960s, 92 percent of all labor union workers were Caucasian. But between 2006 and 2015, those numbers changed dramatically. In that time, the percentage of African-American union workers rose to 21.2 percent, while the percentage of Latino union members rose to 30.5 percent. This period covers the New York City building growth spurt between 2012 and 2015 when employment in the construction industry was rising at a dramatic rate.
As a way of comparison, 15.8 percent of the New York City non-union worker population is African-American, while 48.6 percent are Latino. These numbers are difficult to verify as non-union shops are notorious for hiring undocumented workers, where unions have a vetting process that significantly reduces the number of undocumented workers that are used.
The numbers indicate that, while the Latino population dominates union and non-union construction work, African-American workers are more likely to find work through a union than they are through a non-union shop. Since the 1960s, union shops have worked hard to open up the available high-paying construction jobs to the African-American population, while non-union shops have not made the same progress.
A Difference In Construction Wages
There are two significant downsides to being a non-union worker in New York City; construction wages and work site safety. African-American union workers earn approximately 36.1 percent more in wages and benefits than African-American non-union workers. For the Latino community, non-union construction workers make 34.9 percent less in wages and benefits than union workers.
One of the biggest attractions workers have to the construction industry is that construction typically pays more than any other type of blue collar work. In New York City, union construction workers make 14 percent more than any other kind of blue collar worker, but non-union workers only make four percent more. That 10 percent difference represents thousands of dollars per year in lost construction wages for non-union workers.
Nearly half of all non-union Latino construction workers do not have their high school diploma or equivalent, and this relaxed portion of this group’s hiring criteria could give one reason why their wages are so much lower than union wages. But this wage discrepancy exists for workers with and without a high school education, which puts educated non-union workers at a distinct disadvantage.
Work Site Safety And The New Apprenticeship Rule
It would be one thing if unsafe working conditions on non-union construction sites were just a rumor perpetuated by the unions, but the available data backs up the idea that non-union shops are simply less safe than union shops. In 2014, OSHA investigators revealed that 75 percent of all construction deaths in New York City occurred on non-union job sites. As the number of projects starting in New York City increases, so will the number of non-union deaths.
Unions offer comprehensive safety training before each project, and unions also send out safety inspectors to make sure that union workers have safe working conditions. Projects unrepresented by unions often lack the proper safety personnel on site, do not offer the proper safety equipment for workers, and do very little safety training on a regular basis. When it comes to worksite safety, the numbers clearly indicate that union shops are safer.
The new apprenticeship rule, which we wrote about here, if it is approved, makes it mandatory for all workers who will be working on projects of 10 stories or higher to go through an apprenticeship program. Union shops currently offer 47 percent of the apprenticeship programs in New York City, which is good news for minority workers who work for union shops. Non-union workers may find apprenticeship programs cost prohibitive, which could lead to even more issues for non-union construction companies.
Why Does This Matter?
The numbers indicate that unions are making larger strides in increasing their minority workforces than non-union shops. It is estimated that 15 million Caucasians will have bowed out of the American workforce by 2030. In their place, 24 million minority workers will start taking on roles in the construction industry and other industries around the country. If unions are more open to hiring minority workers, then being part of a non-union shop will prove to have its disadvantages.
The other obvious issue for unrepresented workers will be the lack of access to affordable apprenticeship programs. It is unclear as to whether non-union shops will help pay for apprenticeship programs for their workers, or possibly avoid projects of 10-stories or higher completely. In either event, the approval of the apprenticeship rule looks like it could become another downside to being a non-union construction worker in New York City.
Are Construction Labor Unions Making A Comeback In New York City?
For decades, non-union shops have been giving union workers a run for their money. But as the volume of construction business starts to rise, non-union shops are showing that they are unable to match unions when it comes to wages and worker safety.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is against the apprenticeship rule because he feels it would be unfair to minority workers. That charge is what prompted the recent report commissioned by the Building And Construction Trades of Greater New York. If the independent information in that report is considered legitimate, then it is the unions that offer greater opportunity to minorities and not the non-union shops. The unions also offer higher wages, and much safer work environments, according to the available data.
Unions are also charging that non-union shops take work away from legal United States citizens in New York City by offering jobs to undocumented workers. If unions do start making a comeback in New York City, then there are going to be many downsides to working for a non-union construction company. If the apprenticeship rule is not approved, there is no guarantee that the unions will not find some other way to continue to point out the challenges of working for a non-union shop.