New Year, New Attempts at Prevailing Wage Will Still Cost Our Communities of Color

By Clark Peña, Construction Workforce Project

Last week, we heard the renewed drumbeat for expanded prevailing wage ( Local 79, Sepúlveda rally for prevailing wages – Amsterdam News, 1/23/20). This time calling for higher wages for New York City’s immigrant population. A Bronx rally, headlined by local 79 and New York State Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, called for amendments seeking to include incentive for minority-and women-owned businesses (MWBE’s) to help cover the cost of higher-priced projects.

It’s hard to say what kind of incentive can withstand the enormous cost increase previously proven to be detrimental to those very MWBE’s and Senator Sepúlveda didn’t specify. We only know that the effect of expanded prevailing wage has been found detrimental enough to require massive carve-outs for the greater New York City area in last year’s consideration of the bill.

The renewed push from big union forces in this very public Bronx rallying cry also called for higher wages for New York City’s immigrant and ethnic minority population. Those wages won’t go anywhere if you don’t hire minorities in the first place. And if you really want to know where most of those local and minority construction workers are earning a living, you need to look no further than at New York City’s open-shop construction projects. 80 percent of New York City’s private construction is now being done by open-shop workers, who are not part of a union. 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. We’re eager to hear what the numbers are on the union side, but the unions will not release their figures despite being asked repeatedly to do so. Worse, last year, 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.”

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.

Support for inner-city, ethnically diverse workers needs to be demonstrated as our open shop industry has done. These prevailing wage efforts are proving to be nothing more than another market grab for special interests.

In this new year, we’re seeing many new efforts that have previously repeatedly proven problematic. Governor Cuomo, in his proposed 2021 budget address includes an 11-member subsidy board to “study the impact of prevailing wage” project by project. This is nothing more than an attempt to rig the process and make prevailing wage projects inevitable, everywhere.

The only one way to assure our city-resident, immigrant, black and Latino workforce a place on our construction sites is to continue developing affordable projects and support our city workers and MWBE’s in both word – and deed.

Clark Peña is Director of Advocacy for Construction Workforce Project, a 501©3 advocacy organization whose partners are community and faith-based groups, public housing associations, industry leaders and other local stakeholders, who are driven to educate New York City constituents and other elected officials on the benefits of merit shop work for historically underrepresented multi-cultural communities in our region.

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