Aug. 26, 2022 Responding Op-Ed By Gary LaBarbera, President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York
Brian Sampson has it all wrong. Yes, construction work is a pathway to the middle class. However, that is only true because of the collective power of union labor.
Union labor created the prevailing wage. Union labor created healthcare and pension benefits for construction workers. Union labor advocates for safety legislation, wage, and benefit theft legislation. Union labor enforces these laws. Union labor monitors the unscrupulous conduct of some employers in the industry and help our public agencies enforce wage and hour laws, anti-discrimination laws, anti-harassment laws and many others that make it possible for construction workers to earn and keep a middle-class lifestyle.
Brian Sampson and the ABC again have it all wrong. The claim that unions are predominantly white is nothing more than old rhetoric that is objectively false and purposefully distracting from the truth. The unions affiliated with the NYC Building and Construction Trades Council (NYCBCTC) are recognized by both our government and our communities as the recognized path for construction opportunities.
Through the Apprentice Readiness Collective, a group of our apprentice readiness programs affiliated with the NYC BCTC, between 2016 and 2021, 92% preparing for union apprenticeships were minorities, only 7% of participants in the pre-apprentice programs were Caucasian. These programs recruit from NYC and 100% of participants are residents of the five boroughs with the largest number of participants in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.
Overall, these programs have a retention rate of nearly 80%. These participants reflect the demographics of the new union recruits. According to a 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute, the majority of the city’s unionized construction workers were already Black and Hispanic individuals, and the number of workers of color in the construction industry’s unionized ranks has only grown.
The non-union minority workforce is also grossly and disproportionately exploited, usually by unscrupulous non-union contractors, which is why it has been the Building and Construction Trades Council at the forefront of advocating for initiatives in New York that prioritize safety training, combat wage theft, and ensure jobsite accountability, including Carlo’s Law and the state’s establishment of a Wage Theft Task Force, which both benefit all union and non-union construction workers.
Furthermore, non-union labor does not offer or leverage these pre-apprentice programs, which are key factors for unlocking that pathway to the middle class and avoiding exploitation on the job, especially for women and people of color.
Pre-apprentice, apprentice, and direct-entry programs have become a centerpiece of the unionized construction industry. These programs provide tangible opportunities for entry-level workers to receive job and safety training both on-site and in the classroom that prepares them for the worksite and incentivizes long-term commitments between employees and employers, which actionably promotes diversity in the industry and ensures a ready, safe, and productive workforce for years to come.
However, if these projects, like Mr. De Niro’s studio complex development in Astoria, don’t build union, the pipeline of union opportunities shrink and the workers who need the opportunities the most are shut out of good-paying union careers.
Development is ingrained in New York City’s DNA and new builds and construction embody the history of the City, as do the thousands of members of the Building and Construction Trades Council who hail from diverse neighborhoods across the five boroughs.
These projects can show a true and genuine commitment to enriching our communities through development by prioritizing the diverse and New York centric workforce that unions actually provide.
Only then will they be opening a door for workers to earn sustainable wages, with benefits, that are invested directly back into New York’s communities, supporting small businesses and retailers, and creating economic vitality across neighborhoods.
Despite Mr. Sampson’s misleading assertions, it is unions that are leading the way in fostering diversity, workplace safety, good-paying jobs and tangible pathways to the middle class within New York’s construction industry. Any project or development that claims to prioritize these key pillars would prioritize union labor.
*Gary LaBarbera is the President of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. Established in 1958, the NYS Building & Construction Trades Council currently represents over 200,000 unionized construction workers in New York State. Our 15 local building trades councils, 12 district councils and state associations, and 135 local unions represent the trades that build our roads, bridges, schools, and office buildings. Believing that every worker deserves a fair wage and safe working conditions, our mission is to protect and further these basic privileges. The Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York (BCTC) consists of local affiliates of 15 national and international unions representing 100,000 working men and women in New York City. For more information, please visit: www.nycbuildingtrades.org