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Opinion

New York City is No Longer Just a Union Town; Open Shop Construction Workers are Finding Their Voice and Must Be Heard


construction workers

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


We’ve all heard that old refrain: “New York City is a union town.” In some cases, that’s still true, as many unions remain both politically influential and dominant in their industries.

But the truth is that New York City is no longer a union town when it comes to construction, as the vast majority of private sector work is being done by the open shop. A review of New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) pulled permits shows that most private construction work across the city – approximately 80 percent – is now done by open shop workers. That equates to more than $15 billion of work for the non-union workforce.

And despite what you might hear from the unions themselves, that’s actually a good thing for local communities and workers who’ve been left behind by the building trades. Men and women of color are finding new opportunities to enter the construction industry, and rates of local hiring on new projects are increasing.

The problem now is that even though construction unions no longer have most of the work in New York City, they still have the loudest voice. Whenever there’s a public discussion about laws or rules affecting the industry, politicians and policymakers always hear from union bosses – but they rarely hear from open shop workers about their interests and their needs.

More elected officials should recognize that the open shop is a prime source of employment and career paths for New Yorkers of color. Around three-quarters of open shop workers are black or Latino and residents of the five boroughs.

Officials also need to understand that construction workers in the open shop are earning good wages and benefits that far surpass those offered in entry-level positions in other industries. Workers are earning at least $20 per hour upon getting into the industry, as well as accessing crucial health insurance and 401k programs.

Beyond the obvious economic benefits for our city’s marginalized families and communities, open shop has also begun to reverse the impact of decades of discriminatory hiring practices in the construction industry. While unions have certainly come a long way, many barriers still stand in the way for people of color entering the field of construction.

This is all because, as its name implies, the open shop provides a particularly inclusive hiring model. And given the high rate of diversity in our part of the industry, employers now are investing more in construction safety and skills training programs for non-English speakers. The incorporation of bilingual instructors into these programs has facilitated efforts to attract workers from diverse backgrounds and expanded open shop job opportunities further.

The question now is how to keep moving the needle. As the open shop continues to expand, the need for support and resources from city and state officials will only continue to increase. These workers work hard to support themselves and their families – and they deserve fairness from politicians across the spectrum.

Politicians at all levels must identify a long-term, ongoing effort to create resources for open shop workers and residents of this great city. New York City really is not just a union town anymore. We’re proud of that and ready to fight to keep that progress going.

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Brian Sampson is president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Empire State Chapter. On Twitter @ABCEmpireState.

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