By Clark Peña of Construction Workforce Project, published in Manhattan Times:
For decades, unions have erected barriers for minorities in New York seeking access to jobs in the construction trade. Earlier this year, a union boss wrote a letter in Crain’s dismissing the merits of open shop projects and calling the value of these workers into question. Faced with this opposition, many of these residents have joined open shop construction projects.
Instead of forcing them to make these decisions, public officials and union bosses should do more to recognize the impact that these workers have on the construction industry and grant them the opportunities they deserve to provide for their families.
As Director of Advocacy for the Construction Workforce Project (CWP), I hear the grievances of black and Latino construction workers every day. Our organization was created with the mission of providing a voice for these individuals so that their input can be heard and lead to meaningful reform.
Amongst the most common complaints of minority workers’ is their lack of recognition by influential union leaders. Rather than welcome these hard-working individuals, they have made it unreasonably challenging for them to have access to safe, good paying jobs. Through a series of policies and practices ranging from non-bilingual training programs to discriminatory superintendents, minority workers face an excess of obstacles when trying to break into this workforce.
Not surprisingly, more and more minority workers are turning to open shop jobs.
Per the latest figures, three out of four of these workers are of a minority background, while most live in one of the city’s five boroughs. This is critical because by attracting local recruits the open shop better reflects the diversity of New York City’s communities and directly injects economic capital into local communities.
Considering these impacts, the rapid growth of the open shop is no coincidence. Studies have shown that approximately 70% of the private construction work currently being completed in the city is now being done by these workers. More importantly, merit-based hiring practices offer opportunities these individuals wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Their hourly wage averages $20/per hour and most have access to generous health care packages and 401(k) programs. These benefits extend to their communities and families as well, which typically come from local, urban neighborhoods and not from far-flung suburbs.
These men and woman are tired of the systemic disrespect they face in their industry.
While they toil tirelessly and do the same job as their union counterparts, they rarely feel they are being treated equally.
Construction unions should do more to recognize this double standard and stop ignoring the realities of their changing workforce. Open shop workers now make up a majority of the private labor force and deserve to have their rights respected. The establishment of the Construction Workforce Project is just the first step in what will hopefully turn out to be a long-lasting reform of a historically insulated industry.
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.
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