On Thursday, construction workers held hard hats in thick hands in the glow of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. In honor of International Workers’ Memorial Day, they solemnly honored the sacrifices of fellow workers who had been injured or killed on the job. The scene embodied the heavy legacy of the city’s building trades: the labor that sculpted gotham’s majesty, muscular but embattled, angled precariously against the city’s powers that be.
Historically, the building trades unions have been known as shrewd political players and a formidable counterweight to developers and the city’s bureaucracy. But now, a civic organization and the real estate industry have teamed up to try to dismantle the construction unions’ political clout.
The Regional Plan Association has issued an extensive report (which as of this writing seems to have been taken down from the RPA’s home page and was only retrievable in cached form), which argues that the pending expiration of 30 city union construction contracts provides an opportunity to roll a little disaster capitalism down 5th Avenue.
Specifically, the report takes aim at:
work rules and practices that impede productivity — and that are driving union developers and contractors to choose open and merit shops rather than union contracts. Open shops are 20 – 30 percent less expensive than union shops, Most of this differential could be
bridged by enforcing a fully productive 8‑hour workday earning an 8‑hour paycheck.
The report also argues that years of collective bargaining struggles have “shaped a culture in which work responsibilities are strictly defined and categorized, delimiting what a given worker will or will not do and creating a legalistic atmosphere that is hostile to productivity.”
Translation: If unions keep winning at the bargaining table, these contracts may end up actually being better for workers than for the bosses’ bottom line. Full exploitation is impossible as long as union representation remains strong.
The work rules typically entail arcane regulations governing things like which workers are required on site, and what kind of equipment to use on a project. RPA President Robert Yaro told the New York Times that the proposal to altering these rules was about “saving the industry,” because onerous work rules could kill development opportunities or force builders (who, by the way, aren’t faring too badly in this sluggish economy) to turn away from union labor altogether.
The backlash was swift and sharp, reports the Times:
“So individuals with longstanding right-wing, anti-worker associations and views want to blame labor for our economic problems,” said Paul Fernandes, a spokesman for Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, a union umbrella group.
“This draft report is rife with factual errors and omissions that reveal its underlying ideology,” he added.
“The only thing missing from this piece of garbage is the Koch brothers and the governor of Wisconsin.”
The contract hooplah, which pits the unions against the Building Trades Employer Association (BTEA), is hardly a throwback to the labor showdowns of New York legend (transit, longshoremen, newspapers and police, to name a few notable postwar industrial actions). Rather, the rising tensions, which echo previous collective-bargaining crises, suggest that once-solid unions like the construction workers are losing their leverage.
It’s a New York story in some ways: according to the RPA’s analysis, the city’s building trades workers are relatively well paid compared to other cities, and thus make easy targets for whittling down “excessive” labor costs. Yet the conflict also follows a nationwide pattern of waging political warfare against public sector unions, as well as the broader crisis facing unions on how to revive the declining movement amidst more fluid, diverse and precarious workforces.
The building trades unions have lost some control over the sector over the years. Just weeks before the RPA report appeared, the Times reported:
There are no official statistics; according to unionized construction companies, two out of five construction jobs in the city are now nonunion, though unions put the number at one in four. All agree that for many years, at least 85 percent of building jobs were union ones.
The BTEA has set up a slick campaign to pressure union members to capitulate to employer demands. Ironically, the campaign’s website extols the value of union workers, but claims that is precisely why workers should roll with the punches and demand less from employers – since, as the BTEA passive-aggressively phrases it, “the world has changed”:
We all know that projects built union are built safer, faster and of higher quality than ourn non-union competition But if we don’t find ways to shrink that 25 percent cost difference – union contractors and union members won’t have projects to build.
But the “differential” the RPA and BTEA complain about is in fact the “union difference” that labor groups see as the workers’ last line of defense against exploitation and abuse, especially for women and people of color in lower-paying sectors.
Take away that difference, and it’s true, you’ve got cheaper workers. But squeezing down labor costs paves the way to a less stable, more hazardous workplace.
According to a study published last month by University of Michigan researchers, “higher levels of unionization equate with lower fatality rates.”
Take away the union difference and you leave construction workers in the same vulnerable position as countless marginal workers nationwide. A groundbreaking multi-city survey by three research institutions reveals that many of these low-paid workers, including immigrant day laborers, are regularly cheated through wage theft and excessive working hours, with minimal legal or social supports.
Cutting back on unions’ supposedly lavish contract terms could backfire for builders as well. Union workers tend to perform more productively than non-union counterparts, according to various studies as well as the RPA’s own findings.
At a legislative conference earlier this month, Mark Ayers, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, flipped the script on the standard arguments against “unfair” union compensation:
American workers who enjoy any sort of job security or retirement security are being viewed with increasing contempt.
The attitude seems to be: How dare these union people enjoy any measure of economic security? That, brothers and sisters is why we must come together as never before and let the world know that WE ARE ONE.
Union busting and social destabilization should not…and will not… be tolerated in a country with as much wealth as the United States.
So far, though, real estate developers seem perfectly willing to tolerate a union-free world, as long as the profits keep coming. City University of New York labor historian Joshua Freeman told In These Times:
I think the employers see this round of negotiations as an opportunity to take advantage of a very weak labor market and a national anti-union campaign to chip away at union rules and union power. …
The idea that development will somehow come to a halt in New York if union power is not cut down seems divorced from any reality. Developers have made money by the bushel in New York using union labor for a long time. But of course, weaker unions mean bigger bushels.
So the upcoming contract talks may test whether corporate coffers can outweigh hardhat clout. Union hands shaped the city’s skyline. But with America’s labor movement grasping for a political foothold, the real estate industry’s gilded shadow looms large on the horizon.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.