CRAIN’S NY: Shift to open-shop construction creating paths to middle class

Construction Workforce Project’s Director of Advocacy, Clark Peña writes in Crain’s New York Business:

For too long, residents of New York City’s historically underserved communities of color have lacked access to opportunities for meaningful employment. For decades, this was especially true in the construction industry, where local residents have often been locked out of the union apprenticeships necessary to gain entry to the building trades.

It’s hard not to notice when construction crews look nothing like the community around them. When buildings are going up in central Brooklyn or the South Bronx, those sites shouldn’t be dominated by white male workers from the suburbs.

But with the vast majority of construction in the city now taking place on open-shop sites, where union and nonunion workers are welcome, that picture has been changing. This is great news for residents looking for good jobs to support themselves and their families.

Per city data, close to 80% of private construction in New York City is now being done by open-shop workers. That amounts to more than $15 billion worth of work.

The reality in today’s construction industry is that open-shop projects are far more likely to employ a racially diverse and locally based workforce. Three out of four workers at open-shop construction sites in New York City are either black or Latino and actually live in the five boroughs.

Most importantly, 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.

Additionally, the rapid growth of open shop in New York City has ensured that workers are safe and well-trained, with opportunities for more trade and skills training to help them advance their careers and earn greater income.

Virtually all of the New Yorkers who benefit from these jobs are men and women who would have otherwise been denied access by construction unions. This is a sobering reminder, but it’s also an indication of great progress.

And while unions increasingly offer apprenticeships to minorities, union leaders have consistently declined to share data regarding minority employment numbers even at the urging of community leaders and organizations such as the NAACP. As a result, the unions’ limited efforts to engage minorities are often nothing more than a smokescreen to mask enduring barriers to entry for these same groups. Because of the lack of transparency, the suggestion that these apprenticeships actually lead to full-time jobs and long-term employment is difficult to substantiate.

Consequently, more work must be done to support open-shop workers across the five boroughs and protect their path to the middle class. To that end, the Construction Workforce Project has just been launched to advocate on behalf of these workers by educating New Yorkers and elected officials on the benefits of open shop work for historically marginalized groups. We hope to provide minority workers with more opportunities for growth and inclusion in the construction industry.

Ultimately, more resources are needed at the city and state level to further finance and strengthen training programs and job-placement initiatives for workers who are entering the open shop or may do so in the future. More effort needs to be made to ensure local taxpaying residents from the five boroughs get to work on these projects.

And the fact remains that union construction interests will keep trying to win back the market share they have lost, even if it means displacing locally based workers of color from the industry. This would be counterproductive and it is why we must continue to fight for the future of open-shop work.

Here’s the bottom line: Open shop is now the dominant force in New York City’s construction industry and is opening doors for men and women from local communities.

clerk penaClark 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.

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