ALBANY — In a classic struggle between business and labor interests, a battle is raging at the statehouse over legislation that would impose prevailing-wage requirements on construction projects that are supported with tax incentives or public subsidies.

The latest volley was fired this week by a coalition of more than 40 organizations calling for the defeat of the measure, which is backed by the New York State AFL-CIO, an influential labor federation that is an ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic leadership of both the state Senate and Assembly.

In what it cast as “an open letter to New Yorkers,” the Don’t Block New York Building coalition called the measure advancing in both legislative chambers a “job-killing proposal” that will discourage private-sector investment in economic-development projects.

Among the group’s diverse members are: the North Country Chamber of Commerce, the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, Unshackle Upstate, the Food Industry Alliance, the Business Council of New York State and Commerce Chenango.

“Redefining ‘public works’ in the radical way that is being proposed here would have an extraordinary negative effect on the economy across the entire state,” Michael Elmendorf, the president of the Associated General Contractors of New York State, told CNHI. His group is also a coalition member.

E.J. McMahon, research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, estimated that expanding the prevailing-wage mandate in New York to all projects that get public support would boost construction costs significantly.

In an essay published after the legislation was filed, McMahon argued the proposed expansion resembled a “costly protection racket” for New York’s “politically powerful labor cartel.”

The New York AFL-CIO has a very different view.

In a bill memo sent to lawmakers, the federation said the state constitution “clearly requires prevailing rate be paid to workers on public-works projects” so that taxpayer dollars help to spawn job creation.

As to the need for the legislation, the AFL-CIO said: “Attempts to exempt projects that include private investment in publicly owned and/or financed facilities and a myriad of other distractions designed to deflect prevailing rate requirements have been worked into the process, often creating confusion and frustration for workers and employers alike.”

The federation, noting it represents some 2.5 million New Yorkers, said the legislation ensures that all projects getting taxpayer resources are defined as “public works.” It said the measure would help to create new union apprenticeship opportunities and “prevent unscrupulous contractors from exploiting workers by driving down pay.”

Current law is unclear on what constitutes a public works project in New York. But the legislation, authored by Sen. Jessica Ramos, (D-Queens), and Assemblyman Harry Bronson, (D-Rochester), defines public works as a project that would get a public subsidy, tax credits or tax-free bonds.

Cuomo has identified an expansion of the prevailing wage mandate as one of his legislative priorities.

In his State of the State speech in January, the governor stated: “Construction with public subsidies should be subject to the prevailing wage so they’re built right, they’re built fairly, they’re built union.”

In construction trade jobs, the prevailing wage is usually several dollars more per hour than the market wage.

Elmendorf said that he believes the current law could be amended to clarify what constitutes a public works project, though he urged that it be done in a way that does not discourage private investment in construction projects.

He acknowledged that projects that provided new offices for the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute campus in Albany are examples of ones that should be classified as public works.

“There is something to be fixed, but what is being proposed here would wreak economic havoc, and I think disproportionately so for upstate,” Elmendorf said.

© 2019 Press-Republican

You may also like

EDITORIAL: Cuomo’s latest ‘triumph,’ gold-plated at your expense

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest economic development “triumph” is a deal to bring a high-tech chipmaker into the 450-acre Marcy Nanocenter outside Utica, where Cree Inc. will build a $1 billion plant with 600 skilled jobs at an average $75,000 salary. Read More

Capitol pressroom

Former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and EJ McMahon, Founder and Research Director of the Empire Center, shared their insights into the effects of the legislation and the political implications. Read More


Of the $508 million in pork awarded last year, most of it came from the State and Municipal Facilities program, which is widely derided as legislative slush fund, according to an analysis by the fiscally  conservative Empire Center for Public Policy. Read More

EDITORIAL: When Albany plays Santa, hold on to your wallet

As the Empire Center’s Ken Girardin reported last week, new SMFP cash “was noticeably missing from the budget bills adopted on April 1, raising the suspicion that a fresh infusion” will be part of the Big Ugly legislation rushed through in the end-of-session crush. Read More

The labor movement’s push for farmworker rights

Fiscal conservatives fault the state prevailing wage requirement for driving up the cost of public infrastructure by double digits. A 2017 Empire Center for Public Policy analysis found the law “drives up total construction costs by 13% to 25%, depending on the region, which will translate into billions of dollars in added taxpayer-funded spending.” Read More

Expanding prevailing wage: a help to region’s fortunes, or hindrance?

But an Empire Center for Public Policy study estimated that the state's prevailing wage mandate would drive up the cost of publicly funded projects by at least 20 percent in the Buffalo area, compared to median private-sector construction wages. The study estimated the mandate led to increases of anywhere from 13 percent to 25 percent in the state, depending on the region. Read More

Lawmaker calls question about prevailing wage calculation a ‘deflection’

The Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank, has repeatedly highlighted the opaque process by which the state Department of Labor calculates prevailing wage in different regions and raised questions about the accuracy of the calculations. The group recently noted that the state “refused to publicly release copies of the construction union contracts and pay scales it uses as the basis for its prevailing wage calculation.” Read More

EDITORIAL: Naked politics is driving Albany Democrats

The governor and state Senate would dedicate the revenue for the MTA — but you can bet they’ll count it as their contribution to the agency. (And the Assembly just wants the tax to fund its overall huge boost in statewide spending.) It also means trouble for future MTA budgets, the Empire Center’s E.J. McMahon warns, since real estate tax revenues are highly volatile. Read More