(Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer)
By Stephen Herzenberg
The construction industry in the United States has a rich history, once known for providing quality jobs that were a pathway to the middle class to millions of workers. Over the past 50+ years, however, the quality of construction jobs here in Pennsylvania and across the country has significantly deteriorated, resulting in adverse effects for workers and the industry as a whole. It is crucial to address this decline and restore dignity to construction work.
A new report from the Keystone Research Center contains an overview of a book published this summer by Mark Erlich, a former Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, The Way We Build: Restoring Dignity to Construction Work. The book and report describe the historical, economic, and political developments that have eroded the quality of construction jobs in the United States—an estimated more than 11 million jobs today (counting those in the underground economy).
One of the key factors contributing to the erosion of job quality is the concerted effort to weaken unions by major industrial customers. In the late 1960s, building and construction trades unions held significant power, negotiating higher wages and securing better working conditions through collective bargaining. This threatened the interests of big industrial customers, leading to a deliberate campaign to undermine unions and their influence. Additionally, successful campaigns were waged to repeal prevailing wage laws in many states, further compromising job quality.
Another significant challenge faced by construction workers is the misclassification of employees as independent contractors. Lobbyists convinced Congress to enact regulatory changes in the late 1970s, allowing construction contractors to classify workers falsely. This misclassification saves employers an estimated 30% in tax and insurance obligations.
The exploitation of immigrants, some undocumented, has exacerbated the plunge in job quality, with workers paid under the table in cash—and sometimes not paid at all.
Research reveals shocking realities regarding nonpayment of overtime and wages in construction. In Texas, for example, surveys indicate that nonpayment rates can reach as high as 40%. A national report estimates that up to 2.2 million construction workers are either misclassified or employed informally off-the-books. This not only harms workers but also enables fraudulent employers to evade tax and insurance obligations to state and federal governments.
Pennsylvania, a state with a strong union tradition, has not been immune to these challenges. While union membership rates have decreased compared to the 1980s, Pennsylvania has maintained its reputation as a strong labor state relative to the rest of the country in this industry. Even in Pennsylvania, construction workers face issues such as misclassification and declining wages. It is imperative that the state takes proactive steps to build forward better in construction.
The Keystone Research Center report presents several recommendations for Pennsylvania to improve the construction industry. These include conducting detailed research on the prevalence of misclassification, using surveys to get real data on the size of the cash-economy workforce, and updating a profile of construction apprenticeships in the state. Critically, enforcing prevailing wage laws, implementing project labor agreements on large contracts, and enacting responsible contractor legislation are essential to ensure fair labor practices and job quality.
Through government-industry-community collaboration to diversify the pipeline to high-paid union construction careers, Pennsylvania can create opportunities for all workers, regardless of their background. This collaboration should be a requirement on federally funded infrastructure, climate, and innovation projects, with responsible contractors awarded bids to ensure that taxpayer resources are used wisely and responsibly.
By prioritizing job quality, safety, and fair labor practices, the Commonwealth can transform the construction industry into one that values and respects its workers. Decent wages, stability, and opportunities for growth should be the hallmarks of construction jobs. Building forward better in construction is not only an economic imperative but also a crucial step towards a more equitable and sustainable future for the industry.
By restoring dignity to construction work, we can ensure that our infrastructure and construction projects are of the highest quality, maximizing the benefits for our state as well as its workers. After all, in construction as well as other skilled labor, you get what you pay for. Our policymakers need to take that reality to heart, and act accordingly.
Stephen Herzenberg is the Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center.
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