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The Real Cost of Poor Pay
Part 2 of 3: Why Don't More Non-Union Workers Cross Over to a Union?

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Non-union construction workers in New York City have historically been paid lower and lower wages, which affects the entire industry to this day. Part two of a three-part series.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 87.3 percent of the country’s construction industry is non-union. As explored in the previous installment of this article series, it’s clear why developers go non-union—to save a few bucks. What’s also clear is that the developers’ drive to save money is having an enormous financial and physical impact on non-union workers. So, why do workers choose to remain on the non-union side, agreeing to unsafe conditions, abuse, and low wages?


It can’t be ignored that many non-union workers in New York are undocumented immigrants who cannot complete the certification process involved in joining unions, while non-union jobs are easy to find and quick to hire.

Why do workers remain on the non-union side, agreeing to unsafe conditions, abuse, and low wages?

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Union membership has been falling in America since its peak of over 30% in the 1960s. Today, less than 13% of America's construction work force is unionized, affecting cost, safety, and the health of the economy. Some believe that with money flowing through the industry, it's harder to recruit new workers into unions.

Council member Sandra Ung, who represents the city’s 20th district, described how difficult it is for immigrant workers to join unions. “My district is majority Asian, and union membership among Chinese and Korean workers is one of the lowest among the city’s diverse communities—not just in the construction industry—but in all sectors of the workforce,” Ung said. She added that while the process of joining a union may sway undocumented and other immigrant workers, the certificates and licenses required to be a union worker only exist for a good reason: “to protect workers by creating a safe work environment.”

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New York City Council Member Sandra Ung of the 20th district.

Ung suggested that mass unionization is key to fixing the problems that plague the city’s construction field. “Casting a wider net to attract a more diverse group of workers and educate them about the benefits of union membership is key to their success,” she said, adding that it is among her responsibilities to inform her constituents of the “avenues available to them to join unions—such as certifications and apprenticeships—as opportunities rather than hurdles.” Such a campaign, she said, will help create a “strong union workforce in this city for generations to come.”


Despite A High Up-Side, Many Don't Join a Union

Ung added that when workers come together to push for a collective goal, they stand a better chance of not just earning a higher wage, but also benefits like healthcare, vacation time, and sick leave. More and more the American population is coming around to favor unions because of these reasons.


Yet it’s proven difficult to bring non-union workers into the union fold when they see plenty of work for them within non-union shops. “Unionizing is not something they're going to necessarily do voluntarily, unless they are otherwise compelled to, like in the way a strike would tend to get people's undivided attention,” said a former union carpenter and construction industry expert who opted to remain anonymous for this article. “Short of that sort of thing, they'll keep going with the easier, low-paid option.”

When they see plenty of work for them within non-union shops, it's hard to convince many workers to take the time and effort to become a union member – even when many are suffering abuse at the hands of their bosses. 

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New York City Council Member Francisco Moya, of the 21st District, wrote Carlos' Law when a member of the NY Assembly, to punish contractors who abuse safety regulations for profit and cause harm and death to workers..

Unfortunately, it is an “option” that all too often results in injury and death. The most recent report on industry safety by NYCOSH, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, non-union construction sites are exponentially more dangerous and deadly than union sites.


In New York, Non-Union Ails Affect Hispanics Most

This is a reality that disproportionately affects non-union Hispanic workers above all others. According to NYCOSH, at least 50 percent of the more than 60 deaths that have occurred on non-union construction sites in the city have befallen Hispanic men. As New York City Council member Francisco Moya (who represents the 21st district) put it: “The skyline of the city of New York should be built on the sweat—not the blood—of its workers. Safety should be the number one priority on every construction site.”


Senator Jessica Ramos, who has represented New York's 13th district since 2018, agreed with this sentiment when she spoke to Union-Built Matters last fall. "Everybody is looking to make the most money possible," she had said of the climate of the non-union construction space. "Unfortunately, that is done on the backs of day laborers."

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New York State Senator Jessica Ramos has a record of promoting and defending workers' rights against the negative forces of powerful and monied interests.

As council member Ung points out, there are some very real and difficult obstacles that keep many people with construction skills from seeking to join a union. But there is no debate that unions provide safer workplaces, higher level expertise, and better pay, all of which result in better buildings for New York.


Meanwhile, non-union workers continue to encounter injury and even death so that developers can save money.


What drives the pay scale of construction workers in New York? The gritty details of construction workers’ wages—on both the union and non-union side—will be detailed in the forthcoming third installment of this article series.

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Many factors affect the pay scale of construction workers in New York. Some of them are legitimately market-driven, but many are manipulations caused by illegality and greed. In the next and final installment of this 3-part series on the harm of low pay, we examine those influences.

Jess Sign

Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at

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The Cost of Low Pay:
Part 1, How We Got Here
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The Cost of Low Pay:
Part 3, The Gritty Truth That Sets the Construction Payscale
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