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On Huge Projects, Require Developers to Hire Unions

There is too much at stake: money, safety, quality and lives.

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The Freedom Tower is one of New York City's most precious high-rises. It holds so much meaning and value for everyone with a connection to New York. Which is why the builders insisted that it be built by NYC unions. Nothing less would be good enough. It's time we take that approach to all large projects in New York City. Too much is at stake. 

When a developer decides to put up a building in New York City that exceeds a certain size, they should be required to hire unions to build it.

Here’s why: Many non-unionized construction companies are responsible for a raft of harm that affects every New Yorker. When these bad actors win big projects, they gain access to a larger opportunity to commit larger harms. “But don’t we have laws against that kind of behavior?” you reasonably ask. Yes, there are laws, but they’re weak and they are not succeeding at curbing the bad behavior.

Case in point: the wrongdoing by these subcontractors is so rampant that city leaders formed the New York City Construction Fraud Task Force in 2015. They targeted the companies that illegally withheld their employees’ wages, defrauded them of insurance, bilked the city and state taxpayer, and skirted safety regulations. And the Task Force succeeded in fining some of these perpetrators millions of dollars. They even successfully brought manslaughter charges against one subcontractor.

Despite these successes the malfeasance still goes on today.

Non-unionized construction workers continue to be injured or killed at an alarming rate on unsafe non-union job sites. New York taxpayers lose over $270 million every year due to unreported payroll by non-unionized subcontractors. And vulnerable non-unionized dayworkers are having $10 to $20 million in wages stolen from them every week.

It is important to note that none of this bad behavior is seen within New York’s unionized construction companies.

To meet developers' demands for lower costs, many open-shop managers choose to steal employee wages, cheat on taxes and insurance, and ignore safety regulations – not an environment that fosters high quality work.

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The high-rise at 53 West 53rd St is one of the most successful modern buildings in New York, and is union-built.

The luxury condo currently stalled in the seaport district because it is leaning to the north, is an example of non-union craftsmanship.

In fact, the one audience who sees inside all new buildings in New York, the building inspectors, have spoken about the differences between union and non-union work. One inspector who remains busy in Hudson Yard said “The degree of professionalism on a union site is very high. Each worker knows his or her job, is licensed to do it, knows who to talk to if there are problems. You sense their control, their calm.”

He continued, “But on many non-union sites I’ve seen, it’s the wild west. People are working without safety gear and no one is hassling them about it. Guys are bringing their own gear. You have no idea of anyone’s qualifications. One guy was working on electrical. I had reason to ask to see his license. He showed me his drivers’ license. The wild west.”

And still, in a development that is very bad for New York, non-union open-shop contractors continue to win more and more big construction assignments in this city — over half of them.

There is a simple explanation for this otherwise mind-boggling fact. It’s greed. Very powerful developers set the tone by demanding lower and lower construction bids. Subcontractors oblige these demands to win the bid. But to meet the low cost, many managers choose to steal wages, cheat on taxes and insurance, and ignore safety regulations. They couldn’t get away with that mistreatment if they hired union labor, so they hire a non-unionized workforce who have no representation, no power.

And when those buildings are finally sold there is no difference in the price between those that were made by qualified unions and those that were put up “wild west” style and more cheaply by non-unions. So that means the savings won by demanding lower bids and hiring non-union labor are not going to you the buyer (who is buying an arguably worse product) but instead the savings go to the developer.

Connect these dots: Wages stolen from a workforce made up of hardworking and vulnerable people go into the pockets of the wealthy who sit at the top of a $45B industry.

There are laws on the books, and new ones in the works, that will help all workers in New York to be treated more fairly or at least have more recourse when they feel they’ve been wronged. But we’ve seen this movie before. The Construction Fraud Task Force made a dent in this behavior, but unscrupulous players have still been able to get around the rules.

There is so much at stake on these large urban projects and too many non-unionized construction companies have shown how they choose to operate — causing hundreds of millions to be lost in taxes, less-reliable building quality, abuse of a vulnerable employee sector, injuries and death. The answer to this problem is staring us in the face.

Require that developers hire unions for any construction project exceeding a certain square footage or number of floors.

If a developer insists on hiring non-union for these projects, they should have to justify that decision to a supervisory construction board. And if they hire a non-union, and that subcontractor is caught breaking the law, the fines should be multiplied by a healthy X factor and the developers should be equally liable for those fines.

New York’s construction unions – apprenticed, licensed, re-certified regularly – are the most talented and reliable construction workforce in the world. It’s a crime that big projects go to a less-qualified set of workers who suffer abuse so that wealthy developers can pocket a higher profit.

Make it a law. Developers must hire unions.

The US House of Reps Passed the PRO-Act to Protect Worker Rights

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Here are five provisions

in the PRO Act:


  1. So-called right-to-work laws in more than two dozen states allow workers in union-represented workplaces to opt out of the union, and not pay union dues. At the same time, such workers are still covered under the wage and benefits provisions of the union contract. The PRO Act would allow unions to override such laws and collect dues from those who opt out, in order to cover the cost of collective bargaining and administration of the contract.

  2. Employee interference and influence in union elections would be forbidden. Company-sponsored meetings — with mandatory attendance — are often used to lobby against a union organizing drive. Such meetings would be illegal. Additionally, employees would be able to cast a ballot in union organizing elections at a location away from company property.

  3. Often, even successful union organizing drives fail to result in an agreement on a first contract between labor and management. The PRO Act would remedy that by allowing newly certified unions to seek arbitration and mediation to settle such impasses in negotiations.

  4. The law would prevent an employer from using its employee's immigration status against them when determining the terms of their employment.

  5. It would establish monetary penalties for companies and executives that violate workers' rights. Corporate directors and other officers of the company could also be held liable.

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Get The Facts

If you work, shop, study, or live in a NYC high-rise, here are 3 reasons you'll want to know who built it: safety, quality, and cost to you. Find out the real stories about non-union construction in New York City. 

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