Higher Wages Don’t Mean
Higher Price Tags
I grabbed a beer with a longtime union shop owner to get his thoughts on the NYC construction industry. He explains why hiring union can be far less costly than opting for non-union.
One example of BAC Local 7's tile work in a posh Manhattan lobby.
Pete was a linebacker in highschool. He towers over the sea of Happy Hour patrons, his calloused hands making the Miller Lite bottle in his hand appear comically small. A decade’s long member of Bricklayer and Craftworkers (BAC) Local 7, he now runs his own shop, doing marble work in some of the most prestigious buildings in New York. There are few more knowledgeable about NYC construction. I was able to grab his ear for a few minutes at a pub just outside of the city.
The pride Pete takes in his work matches his stature. He hires only highly-trained union artisans, the best in the world at what they do, and as a result, his marble work is the best money can buy. He swipes through his phone's camera roll, excitedly showing off some of his recent jobs. There are lobbies, bathrooms, hallways, corporate kitchens, all decked out in stunning floor to ceiling marble. “You see this one?” He shows me a picture of an expansive lobby with ornate marble floors. “We did that job in less than a week.”
Pete’s mood takes a turn for the worse when I ask about if it’s gotten harder for unionized construction in the city. “It feels like it gets worse and worse,” Pete laments in between sips of beer. “When I started, it wasn’t like this.” Pete blames troubles facing unionized construction on an almost personal vendetta against unions by some of the biggest real estate developers. “A lot of these big developers just hate our guts because they can’t steamroll us the way they do the non-union guys,” Pete laments. “It’s not about quality or even cost.”
"A lot of these big developers just hate our guts because they can’t steamroll us the way they do the non-union guys.”
In a side-by-side case study, the building on the right, 33 Bond St. in Brooklyn, was completed in 2 years, well ahead of schedule. It was built by unions. The building on the left, 61 Bond, was less than a quarter the size of the union building across the street, and it took non-union crews more than four years to complete. -- Google Street View
But even with the deck stacked against him, Pete says business is good. “I’m actually beating guys on a lot of non-union jobs,” Pete tells me. “And trust me, they’re not hiring me out of the goodness of their hearts.” The reason, it turns out, is simple math. “Yeah I pay my guys a lot better. But they can do in one day what it takes non-union guys three to do. And it will be higher quality.” The reason Pete’s union shop can pull this off comes down to one thing: the training and skill of unionized construction workers.
The fact that Union-trained workers do faster, higher quality work is proven on job sites throughout New York City. In Brooklyn, unions completed a huge building complex at 61 Bond Street, while across the road, at 33 Bond, non-unions took four years to finish a project that was four times smaller. And a worker was killed on the site by faulty equipment. Union work is faster, better, safer.
Pete kicks back the last of his Miller Lite and pounds the bottle down on the bartop. “If there’s one thing I wish people understood, that’s it. Next time someone tells you union is more costly, you call bulls**t.”
Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.
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