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US Construction’s Bizarro World

As projects and costs increase, worker union representation decreases. Only in an upside-down universe does this make any sense.


“Something certifiably crazy is going on in America right now.” Union-Built Matters spoke with a construction company sales person who insisted on anonymity because his comments might harm some of his business dealings with non-union contractors. But he was none-the-less confused and alarmed at the direction of the U.S. construction industry.


“Work is booming, but so many builders are hiring the wrong people to do the work. This is frightening to me,” he said. To illustrate his point, he broke his argument down into four simple facts, which we have elaborated on with some supporting data.


Fact one, he said, is “the amount of construction happening in the U.S. is just off the charts. We’ve never seen anything like this.” Per the U.S. Census Bureau, in the month of March 2023 alone, nearly $2 trillion was spent in the U.S. on construction projects. That’s a record. In New York last year builders spent $86 billion on projects. Also a record. The associated General Contractors of America says that construction hiring went up in 45 of America’s 50 states this past year. We are building furiously.

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His fact two; “When it comes to quality, speed, safety, all those important measures, union labor is just better. There is literally no one I talk to in this job who will refute that statement.” We support his claim with some of our own facts.

  • Unions require their members to complete an arduous apprenticeship focused on the detailed aspects of their trade. 

  • Unions require their members to complete annual training updates to remain in good standing.

  • Union labor is faster, safer, and more efficient than non-union labor.

  • Because of this initial and annual training, plus the way they are protected by their unions in safety and salary negotiations, plus their sterling track record, union journeymen and women are recognized as the best in the business.


Fact three he said like this, “Look, there are a bunch of reasons for this, but when compared to union labor, non-union does not measure up. Again, no debate from the people I talk to about this.” We offer a few factors that might shed light on non-union inefficiency. 

  • Non-union contractors enforce no unifying set of training standards when hiring help, nor do they adhere to a unified safety or pay-scale code.

  • Many non-union contractors employ tactics like wage theft, tax and insurance fraud, and corner cutting on critical materials as a way to enrich themselves. Just look at the public record of indictments in New York alone.

  • Much more often, non-union worksites encounter work stoppages or slow downs due to injuries, violations, staff shortages, and even deaths. 

  • Because of these facts, hiring non-union contractors has become a crap shoot between profits and disaster.

Why are so many construction projects going to non-union labor when unions are so clearly faster, safer and better?  

Considering all of these facts, and as construction of all kinds in this country is booming, it stands to reason that the people making the labor decisions on large projects would have a natural bias toward hiring unions. Unions are simply the safest investment by all measures.


But fact four is the confusing one. “I read that construction union labor is shrinking. Considering everything we just talked about, how does that make any sense at all? It's bizarro world.”


A report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that only 11.7% of the nation’s construction workforce belongs to a union. That figure is down from a previous low of 12.6% in 2021. In New York the numbers are a little better, more like 20% unionized labor. But the sales person is right. The direction we’re heading makes no sense.

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But he has some ideas about what is driving the trend. “It’s a perfect storm. On the one hand, so many states have made it nearly impossible to form a union. Their politicians will bad-mouth unions. They’ll misrepresent what unions do for workers. It’s truly shameful, because unions help workers in every way. Safety. Pay. Quality of life. Why would a politician not want their constituency to have those things? It baffles me, but their sentiment that unions are bad has taken hold in a lot of places.”


“On the other hand,” he added, “you have some developers who just want total control of their project. And they believe hiring union labor takes a lot of that control away. They make the thin argument that union labor costs more, but we all know that’s not true when you factor in how much money is wasted by the inefficiency of non-union labor. I wish they'd see that they get more control by hiring union. Budgets are met. Deadlines are met. Quality standards are exceeded. That's control."


“Combine these things,” he concludes, “and the deck is stacked against unions. And honestly, that’s just bad for everyone.”


If you’re shopping for real estate in New York City, you can help fight this trend by asking your real estate agent to show you properties that were built by union labor. It’s the safest investment for everyone. Yourself included.

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