New York’s construction unions, facing a decades-long decline, are employing a time-honored tactic: getting state government to stop people from competing with them. 

The share of New York private-sector construction workers represented by a union has trended down since the early 1980s, according to federal data analyzed by the academic website Union representation in the field averaged more than 40 percent until the mid-1980s, falling to about 30 percent around the early 2000s, and to just under 25 percent over the past five years. 

Construction unions are different from other labor unions in that they typically arrange work for their members, rather than just representing them at their place of employment. 

The outfits, sometimes known as the building trades, face various challenges ranging from underfunded pension plans that drive up what they must charge to how work gets divided at unionized job sites, which can make projects take longer. The resultant inefficiency was neatly summed up in the federal prosecution of James Cahill, the former top construction union official—who took bribes to help at least one business avoid hiring through union halls. 

The unions have more recently had to contend with competition from automation. 

Despite this, they have a powerful tool at their disposal: their influence in Albany has meant friendly lawmakers are willing to reconfigure state policy to their financial benefit. 

For one thing, the unions have been buoyed by the state’s century-old “prevailing wage,” a misnamed state policy that—in its current form—effectively forces local governments, state agencies, and other public entities to match the local unions’ compensation levels and overtime rules for each trade on public works projects. That means the competitive advantage of non-union contractors has been at least partially neutralized when they bid on government jobs. Prevailing wage meanwhile adds an estimated 13 to 25 percent to public construction costs. 

During the 1990s, state officials went further and began requiring contractors to sign deals known as project labor agreements (PLAs) with construction unions as a condition of bidding on certain state jobs. Since PLAs typically require most or all hiring to go through the union, this boxes out contractors who have their own non-unionized workforce, and leaves public agencies with fewer (and higher) bids. In a noteworthy 2011 episode, the state Department of Transportation solicited bids for a highway exit construction project in Orange County with an ambiguous PLA requirement—and the Cuomo Administration spent years in court to void the lowest bid because it didn’t involve a PLA. 

The Legislature has taken to requiring prevailing wage and/or project labor agreements as part of high-profile construction programs approved in recent years, attaching conditions to the state’s sweeping 2019 climate bill, the subsidies for the new Buffalo Bills stadium, and economic development projects. 

Lawmakers in the current legislative session, which is set to wrap up later this week, have pushed other bills that would steer work to the construction unions. For instance: 

  • Senators yesterday approved a “roadway excavation quality assurance” bill (S4887/A5608) that the sponsors claim will assure excavation quality solely by forcing utility companies to pay prevailing wage when they dig on or near a street. The added costs will be passed to ratepayers in the form of higher cable, internet, and electricity rates. 
  • The Senate is also poised to vote on a bill (S6050/A5486) that would pressure the State University Construction Fund to require more project labor agreements. The sponsors say they’re targeting the number of “out-of-state workers” employed on state projects. 
  • Since prevailing wage drives up costs and encourages contractors to have more work performed off-site, lawmakers want to apply prevailing wage to those jobs too (S5475/A373). 

State officials have supported these and other boosters for the building trades even at the detriment of the state’s own policy goals. For instance, state law requires many renewable energy developers to pay prevailing wage, meaning the cost of replacing fossil-fuel power plants with solar panels and wind turbines will be considerably greater than necessary. Ditto for housing, transit, water quality, environmental and other crucial issues that ostensibly justify substantial state spending. 

New Yorkers will have to figure out for themselves how lawmakers’ purported priorities stack up as long as steering work to the state’s construction unions remains a priority, too.

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