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WEEKDAY MAGAZINE – Prevailing Wage

Bronx resident Rahdell Hall (L) at a local construction site. Mr. Hall is a participant of Building Skills NY, an organization that helps residents gain access to careers in the construction industry. (photo courtesy of Building Skills New York)

By Clark Peña

April 18, 2019

Prevailing wage discussions need to be about workers of color


Almost all of the reported legislative goals of the 2019 New York State budget passed— a plastic bag ban, congestion pricing, and a mansion tax. However, noticeably missing from this year’s budget was a prevailing wage expansion. That’s because lawmakers are increasingly taking note of the harmful effects of a misguided prevailing wage expansion on workers of color, minority-and-women-owned businesses, and working-class families.

Despite its failure to pass in the state budget, the union-backed prevailing wage expansion continues to be debated by lawmakers. However, what was once a much more one-sided conversation has shifted as more legislators begin to question the impacts that the proposed expansion will have on workers of color.

Lawmakers’ change of tune—and the fact that a prevailing wage expansion was not included in the state budget with a Democrat-controlled Senate and Assembly— is emblematic of the fact that the concerns of open shop construction workers are real and have yet to be addressed. Included amongst these concerns are the inevitable loss of job opportunities for workers of color, local workers, and MWBEs.

The shifting nature of the discussion also stems from increased awareness about the lack of diversity in the union workforce. A prevailing wage expansion would only further exacerbate this inequality. Meanwhile, open shop workers—who stand to be affected most by the proposal under consideration—are overwhelmingly diverse. Per city data, nearly 75 percent are Black or Latino and hail from communities like Queens and the Bronx.

Because of this reality, support for expanding the prevailing wage amounts to support for a less diverse construction workforce.

The good news is that private construction in New York is no longer monopolized by the unions. Almost 80 percent of private development in New York City is being built by open shop workers. That means Black and Latino construction workers are able to contribute to the economic vibrancy of their own communities. However, with a prevailing wage expansion, all progress for minorities in the construction industry would come to a halt and even be reversed.

Meanwhile, unable to come up with viable solutions to a critical problem, unions continue to resort to the same tired talking points when responding to criticisms about their lack of diversity. Unions remain unwilling and unable to address the concerns of New York’s minority construction workforce. What this has revealed is that unions are only concerned with inflating their members’ salaries, and passing on the costs to working class families who will see construction costs rise.

While it’s encouraging that conversations surrounding the prevailing wage are becoming more inclusive of minority worker’s concerns, this shouldn’t overshadow the fact that any prevailing wage expansion would be hurtful to New York’s workers of color. New York’s construction industry is on the right track to becoming an inclusive workforce, and we intend to not let this vital progress be reversed.

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Clark Peña is Director of Advocacy at the Construction Workforce Project, a non-profit working on behalf of New York’s open shop workers. 

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