By Construction Workforce Project’s Clark Peña, published in the New York Post:
Those of us who advocate for good jobs were concerned by reports that Amazon is reconsidering its decision to build HQ2 in Queens. According to a Friday report in The Washington Post, Amazon officials are having second thoughts after facing a backlash from local politicians, who think the subsidies to Amazon aren’t worth the jobs upside.
If the deal is to be salvaged, Amazon and New York officials need to do all they can to address local concerns and deliver jobs for local workers.
That’s why the city’s independent construction workers hope that Amazon will not only stay in Queens but also commit to building HQ2 with a non-union, open-shop workforce.
When it comes to the construction of the project, the problem Amazon faces is clear: Gov. Cuomo is intent on having the facility built by an all-union workforce. But by seeking to cater to his political donors and patrons instead of his constituents, Cuomo is doing a disservice to those who are most in need of the new development’s benefits.
The reality is that hiring an all-union workforce would limit opportunities for local workers. Additionally, confining these jobs to a specific workforce would leave unaddressed the concerns of public officials who want more of them to go to Queens residents rather than to union workers from New Jersey, Connecticut or Long Island.
Cuomo’s recommended approach would also undercut Amazon’s commitment to hire a diverse workforce. Allegations of racial discrimination have long plagued unions, hurting their ability to recruit talent from both black and Latino communities. As a result, minority workers are increasingly choosing to join the open shop instead.
Rather than face barriers to entry — such as limited apprenticeship programs — these racially diverse and locally based workers recognize that they can find better opportunities in the open shop.
The numbers reflect this changing reality. Per city data, more than 70 percent of private construction work in the city is now being done by open-shop workers. Meanwhile, industry research indicates that approximately three-quarters of these workers are of a minority background and live in one of the city’s five boroughs.
But the benefits of the open shop extend beyond the diversity of Amazon’s workforce alone. On average, these workers earn $20 per hour and generous benefits, including 401(k) packages, which directly bolster the economic well-being of their communities.
Even when minorities have successfully joined construction unions in the city, many have continued to encounter unfair prejudices from site superintendents and other bosses, who offer the best-paying job opportunities to white workers.
Just last month, six African-American members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 15 filed a lawsuit against the union, alleging discrepancies in salary and job selection on the basis of race.
The incidents mentioned in the lawsuit are all said to have occurred at the La Guardia Airport renovation — a project Cuomo has repeatedly lauded as one of his signature infrastructure undertakings. The union denies wrongdoing.
But if past is precedent, how can the governor guarantee that racial discrimination won’t mar the Amazon project?
Cuomo would do well to recognize the evolving nature of New York City’s construction workforce. The facts show that if Amazon really wants to deliver more opportunities to local Queens residents — especially men and women of minority backgrounds — it must make the construction of its HQ2 an open-shop project. Anything else would be a major loss for our local communities.
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.