The Real Cost of Poor Pay
Part 1 of 3: How We Got Here

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Non-union construction workers in New York City have historically been paid lower and lower wages, which affects the entire industry to this day. Part one of a three-part series.

Today, New York City is home to most of the active construction sites in the state—40,000 of them, in fact, according to press secretary for the city’s Department of Buildings Andrew Rudansky. Despite their constant work on our skyline, most of the city’s construction workers face perpetual financial pressure as their profession has rapidly become non-union and low-wage. In fact, data from Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. shows that non-union employees made up 75.6 percent of the state’s construction force in 2020.

 

Non-union worker pay has had a notable impact on New York’s overall construction industry over the years, especially as union contractors have had to lower their own rates to compete for jobs. Plus, aspects like the current high costs of building materials and the surplus of laborers factor into driving non-union workers’ pay downward.

 

“‘Construction worker’ used to be a middle-income job, but now it’s more like a sweatshop job,” said a former union carpenter and construction industry expert who opted to remain anonymous for this article. He added that worker wages have been falling since the 1970s, and that there is seemingly no real progress in sight.

“‘Construction worker’ used to be a middle-income job, but now it’s more like a sweatshop job.”

– Anonymous construction industry source

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New York Mayor Ed Koch oversaw the acquiring and contracting of scores of abandoned buildings in the city and, perhaps unwittingly, fired a starting gun in the construction wage race to the bottom. -- The New York Times 

How Non-Union Labor Drags Down Wages for All

“Construction worker wages have been falling since the Koch Administration, when the city started using non-union labor to build low-income housing,” the anonymous source continued. From the 1920s through the 1960s, construction projects had relied on union contractors. But during the 1970s, according to various historical documents, there was an apparent blitzkrieg of landlords destroying their own buildings for insurance—because they were no longer profitable to rent—which created blighted expanses of the city full of abandoned buildings.

 

By the time Ed Koch became Mayor of New York City in 1978, the city was close to bankrupt. And because the landlords of the numerous deserted residential buildings had ceased paying taxes, the city fell into possession of many of those properties. Instead of the city doing the rebuilding work directly, it chose to go with “the cheapest contractors available,” our unnamed source said, which were indeed non-union.

 

From then on, much of New York’s construction work has been non-union. Scrambling to react to this change in the labor market, union contractors began offering a lower pay scale to developers. And as the union pay trended downwards, so did that of the non-unions. Soon, there was a large population of non-union contractors available for work

“Whether or not a work site is union is one of the greatest factors in the rate of injury or fatality.”

New York City Council member Carmen De La Rosa

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Empty buildings covered large areas of the South Bronx and other boroughs in the late 70s and 80s. The city took control of these structures and awarded remodel/rebuild projects to the lowest bidder, which opened the door for non-union contractors to get a foothold in the city construction business. Since then, they have taken more and more of the projects and driven labor costs lower and lower and created many new problems that New York must now solve. -- The New York Times

By and large, developers chose non-union contractors for jobs, opting for their cheaper prices, which were made possible not only by lowering worker pay but also by the sidestepping of rules—an unfortunate norm that continues today. For instance, on a union job, trade workers see to their own specific tasks; there are particular workers to pour concrete, strip formwork, operate cranes, etc. “But if you’re non-union, you could make one person do all of those jobs,” said our source. “One worker does the job of multiple trades, instead of contractors having to hire people from all different areas of expertise.”

 

Wages Aren’t the Only Thing That Suffers

Of course, this means that work done on most non-union sites is handled with less expertise and experience than on union sites, so as a result, non-union sites are also more dangerous. This, among other factors (like many non-union contractors favoring efficiency over safety or quality), has made construction the deadliest industry in New York City; data from watchdog agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Engineering News-Record (ENR) shows that more than 80 workers have died on the job in the past seven years—roughly one each month.

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One way non-union contractors lower their costs is by skirting costly safety regulations and training, which makes their construction sites much more dangerous and deadly than union sites. So in addition to low-pay, non-union workers also get a significantly increased risk of injury and death.  

“Whether or not a work site is union is one of the greatest factors in the rate of injury or fatality,” said New York City Council member Carmen De La Rosa, adding that because construction “requires a need for strong worker protections,” worker safety should be “at the forefront.”

 

Nevertheless, by the 1990s, the city’s construction market mostly consisted of non-union workers, according to various reported documents including a dissertation published in the Harvard Library.

 

Our anonymous source saw firsthand how the non-union sector rose throughout the decade, expanding rapidly in residential work like single-family house renovations. The non-union sector then crawled into commercial work in the outer boroughs. While today’s commercial work is still handled mostly by union contractors who source various parts of the jobs to more than one layer of union subcontractors, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, much of the work is also done by non-union.

 

The race to the bottom on wages began when non-union contractors entered New York City’s construction industry in the late 1970s and ‘80s. In the years since, as non-union work proliferated, the job of a construction worker has become a low-wage profession in the city. It may take years for the industry to crawl out of this ditch, and the only way out may well be a rise in union contractors. So—why don't more non-union workers choose to join unions?

 

Up Next: An analysis of why non-union workers struggle to cross over to the union side will be examined in a forthcoming installment of this three-part article series.

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Over 60 men have died working on non-union construction site in New York City over the past 5 years. Many of them had the experience and skill to join a union, but chose not to – or felt unable to – for a variety of reasons. It's a situation that may have cost them their lives.

 
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Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at jessica.beebe.ny@gmail.com.

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The Cost of Low Pay:
Part 2, Why More Don't Cross Over
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The Cost of Low Pay:
Part 3, The Gritty Truth That Sets the Construction Payscale
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