top of page

Will New York Stand With Those Who Built This City?

Immigrants and Unions built New York City. They need us now. How will we do?


In a photo taken in 1931, an Irish immigrant construction worker helps build the Empire State Building. In the background stands the recently finished Chrysler Building. New York is a city literally built by immigrants and by unions. -- Lewis Hine / WIKI Commons

New York City is proud to call itself a sanctuary city. That status has been ratified by official city resolution, and attests to our long history of harboring people from afar when they have nowhere else to go.


We’re also a union city. It’s no coincidence that many of the people immigrating to our shores found stability here by joining the construction unions that would shape our great skyline. Together, immigrants and unions have built New York City.


Which is what makes recent developments in New York housing and construction so worrying to anyone who loves this city.


In the past year almost 45,000 people have left their homes in troubled parts of the world and come to New York seeking either safety, security, opportunity or all three. These people need somewhere to stay.


So do the 50,000 more people who were already here and receiving some form of shelter aid from the city. Now consider that almost 600,000 households spend more than half of their income on rent, according to a recent city survey.

New York is in the middle of an immigration and housing crisis. Unions want to help. The legislature needs act.

This crush of humanity and their financial distress adds up to an affordable housing and migrant crisis that the city must deal with.


Mayor Eric Adams’ says that affordable housing an administration priority. He has proposed a housing agenda that includes tax incentives to facilitate affordable housing construction, the elimination of a zoning cap that will add housing in midtown Manhattan, and regulatory changes that would make it easier to convert unused office space to housing.


All of these efforts will alleviate the housing strain that is afflicting immigrants and others.

New York’s construction unions lean in

The city construction unions are also suffering, as more non-union contractors are winning bids on the mistaken idea that they are cheaper than unions. We’ve proven they are not. Despite this trend, union leaders here remain deeply committed to the city and are answering the call to help with these two crises.


A poster for a recent fund-raiser for immigrant causes featured New York State Senator Jessica Ramos and president of the Building and Construction Trades Council Gary LaBarbera. Both have been strong advocates for immigrants and unions.

Michael Prohaska, business manager, Mason Tenders District Council of Greater New York and Laborers Local 79, said, “Our union firmly believes housing is a human right,” said. “That’s why we’re proud to join Mayor Adams in his fight to address the housing crisis in New York City. From building and preserving affordable housing, to ensuring construction connects New Yorkers to unionized careers in the building trades, and finally addressing the subsidy needs of developers that supply the housing — the mayor has a robust plan for the city we call home that Albany can and must help him achieve before [the current legislative] session ends.”


Manny Pastreich, president, 32BJ SEIU, added, “We’ve said it many times, but it bears repeating: We are in a housing crisis. Our state needs to take action now without any further delay. There can be no long-term solutions that don’t involve building more housing.


“This is a large-scale problem, but to begin to tackle it, we need to enact the policies that are right in front of us now. Extending the completion deadline for 421-a projects, converting empty commercial office buildings to residential housing, and raising the FAR cap are common-sense measures that our legislature should pass,” Mr. Pastreich said.


He referred to the now-expired 421-a construction exemption which was the city’s most commonly employed incentive program for building affordable housing. After the extension was allowed to expire and no agreed-to legislative replacement has taken its place, there has been a significant decline in affordable housing construction. The amount of proposed affordable housing for 2023 is below half that of previous years, and this drop-off is during a time of increasing rents, increased migration to the city, and heightened homelessness.


The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, is inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty as she greets immigrants coming to our city. The poem famously states, "Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door." It is a testament to New York's role as the welcoming gateway to the new world.

Mayor Adams’ housing plan ran into another snag when his chief housing officer Jessica Katz, announced that she would resign this summer. And perhaps considering the avalanche of negatives affecting his housing plan, in May the mayor began a push to eliminate the city’s right-to-shelter guarantee, which would change our proud historical status as a haven for people in need.


New York City unions have proven time and again that they are up to any challenge. Just look at our epic skyline. The mayor and legislators in Albany need to do all that they can to take advantage of our unions’ support for an affordable housing plan. New York is a union city, it is an immigrant city, it is a sanctuary city. This is our proud legacy and it must be protected. Our unions are in. Are our legislators?

Get Our Monthly Newsletter

Stay up to date on what's happening in New York construction. Our news comes from major media publishers, real estate and construction trade insiders, and the people involved in the industry every day. And it's free.

Non-Union Stories Page Video Poster.jpg
bottom of page