The increased diversity of New York City union construction employment

This blog post presents some early findings of a forthcoming report* on the race and ethnic diversity of construction employment—union and nonunion—in New York City, updating some of my research released in 2013. The issues were clarified in the earlier research:

“Construction is a sector that has historically excluded black workers—including the unionized portion of the industry. Giving minority workers access to good jobs is an important part of closing our large and persistent racial wage inequities, so this is a critical issue. It was on this basis that many progressives have been hostile to infrastructure spending in the past: it provided jobs in a sector where it was well known and documented that black workers had been excluded from opportunities. Some people, such as National Black Chamber of Commerce CEO Harry C. Alford, contend that ‘construction sites are still close to Jim Crow.’

It is worth asking whether and to what extent construction work is racially exclusionary, especially the unionized sector as Alford also contends. After all, there have been changes over the years, with unions increasing the number of minorities admitted into apprenticeship programs, and undertaking project labor agreements that incorporate community agreements that bring excluded populations into the industry. What does the current situation look like and how does the union sector compare to the nonunion sector? It turns out that, at least in one of our largest and heavily unionized cities, New York City, Alford’s characterization is quite outdated.”

The findings from the forthcoming report confirm our earlier findings, focusing on the employment of black workers in union and nonunion construction over the 2006–15 period and in the union apprenticeship programs:

  • Black workers are far more represented in the union construction workforce (21.2 percent) than in the nonunion construction workforce (15.8 percent) and minorities overall now comprise 55.1 percent of NYC blue-collar construction workers (white workers are 44.9 percent);
  • An examination of the younger workforce, ages 18–40, reflects the most recent hiring decisions and best predicts future employment patterns finds that among younger workers, black workers are even more underrepresented in the nonunion (14.8 percent) relative to the union (21.0 percent) construction sector. Among older workers (ages 41-64) black workers comprised 21.3 percent of union construction workers, while black workers comprised a lesser 17.2 percent share of the older nonunion construction workforce;
  • Minorities comprised 61.8 percent of all NYC residents’ apprenticeships in 2014, far higher than the 36.3 percent share in 1994. Black apprentice participation roughly doubled, rising from being 18.3 percent in 1994 to 35.1 percent twenty years later in 2014;
  • Black union construction workers earn 36.1 percent more than black nonunion construction workers. Because black workers have better wages and greater employment in the union relative to the nonunion construction sector, the presence of unions and collective bargaining in New York City greatly boosts overall annual earnings to the black community from construction by 83 percent, or $152 million each year (compared to the construction sector having nonunion pattern of employment and wages).

Employment Diversity in Construction Occupations, Union versus Nonunion sectors

We start our analysis with the CPS data on construction occupations in the construction industry sector among those living in New York City (See Appendix for data details). Table 1 provides a demographic breakdown of the union and nonunion sectors. Non-Hispanic white workers are a minority in both the union and nonunion workforces in the NYC blue-collar construction occupations. Black workers comprised 21.2 percent of the blue-collar construction workforce in the union sector. In contrast, black workers are severely underrepresented in the nonunion blue-collar construction workforce, comprising just 15.8 percent of the employment. So, black workers are far more underrepresented in the nonunion than in the union construction sector. Hispanic workers are heavily over represented in the nonunion sector where Hispanic workers comprised nearly half of all employment, 48.6 percent.

Table 1

New York City construction occupation employment by race/ethnicity in union and nonunion sectors, 2006–2015

Construction occupations*
Union Nonunion
Race/ethnicity Share of total Share of total
All 100.0% 100.0%
Non-Hispanic white 44.9% 24.7%
All minorities 55.1% 75.3%
Black 21.2% 15.8%
Hispanic*** 30.5% 48.6%
All others 3.4% 11.0%

* Construction occupations in the construction sector, excluding extraction occupations
** All installation, maintenance and repair; production; transportation and material moving; construction and extraction occupations, but excluding construction occupations in construction industry
*** Hispanics excluding Blacks

Source: Author's analysis of Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group microdata, 2006–2015

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.

As the Fuchs et al. Columbia University (2014) study documented, there has been impressive improvements in the diversity of those being brought into the union construction sector via the apprenticeship programs. These data are updated below. To gauge how much impact this has had on construction employment in the union sector we examined the same group as above but separated out those ages 18–40 from those ages 41–64 (Table 2). This will not capture all the progress since these data average over the years 2006 to 2015—had we enough data to examine the last few years the apprenticeship data suggest the diversity of the younger workers would be even greater.

Table 2

New York City construction occupation employment by race/ethnicity in union and nonunion sectors, by age, 2006–2015

Construction occupations*
Union Nonunion
Race/ethnicity Share of total Share of total
Ages 18–40
All 100.0% 100.0%
Non-Hispanic white 38.1% 20.2%
All minorities 61.9% 79.8%
Black 21.0% 14.8%
Hispanic*** 36.6% 55.7%
All others 4.3% 9.3%
Ages 41–64
All 100.0% 100.0%
Non-Hispanic white 53.0% 31.3%
All minorities 47.0% 68.7%
Black 21.3% 17.2%
Hispanic*** 23.3% 37.9%
All others 2.3% 13.6%

* Construction occupations in the construction sector, excluding extraction occupations
*** Hispanics excluding Blacks

Source: Author's analysis of Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group microdata, 2006–2015

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.

Black workers are represented in the younger union workforce comparable to that of the older union workforce, at 21.0 percent for younger workers and 21.3 percent among older union workers. Black workers are more underrepresented in the young nonunion construction workforce (just 14.8 percent) than in the older nonunion workforce (17.2 percent). This suggests that black under-representation has been growing in the nonunion construction sector whereas it has been stable in the union sector.

The share of jobs held by Hispanic workers has grown in both the union and nonunion sectors but far more strongly in the nonunion than the union sector. Hispanic workers are much more represented in the younger (36.6 percent) than the older (23.3 percent) union workforce. Hispanic workers now comprise more than half the younger nonunion workforce (55.7 percent), up from the 37.9 percent in the older nonunion construction workforce.

The share of non-Hispanic whites in the union sector was 38.1 percent for the younger workers, ages 18–40, a substantial decline from the 53.0 percent share of non-Hispanic whites among the older workers (ages 41–64) in the union sector.

Diversity in Apprenticeships

One important metric for assessing the seriousness of efforts of building trade unions to increasing diversity is to examine the race and ethnic composition of apprenticeships, essentially the flow into membership and construction employment in the union construction sector.

The importance of apprenticeship programs was aptly described by the recent Fuchs, Warren, and Bayer (2014, page 10) report from Columbia University’s School of Public and International Affairs (SIPA):

“Union apprenticeship programs have been important for meeting the construction industry’s need for recruiting, training and educating skilled labor. The apprenticeship training programs are funded by construction contractors through the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC), a labor/management partnership supported and sustained by the collective bargaining system. This cost-sharing partnership is essential to both labor and management for ensuring a highly skilled workforce without placing an undue burden on either the industry or labor. Union apprenticeship programs offer a rare, and in most cases free-of-charge, opportunity to ‘earn and learn,’ providing wages and benefits to workers while they learn job-related skills. Upon completing an apprenticeship program, which may last anywhere from two to five years, graduates earn a certificate and can achieve journey worker status and increased earning opportunities. Robert Medlock, Deputy Executive Director of the Consortium for Worker Education, described the apprenticeship certificate as ‘tantamount to a $40,000-50,000 technical education program. Workers complete the apprenticeship program with a lifelong credential that they can carry to any other unionized construction industry in the United States and obtain a middle class job with benefits.’”

The Fuchs et al.’s review of apprenticeship data shows remarkable progress in inclusion. The data from this report, updated to include comparable 2014 data, are presented in Figure A. The white worker share of apprenticeships of New York City residents in 1994 was 63.7 percent which by 2012 and 2014 had fallen to, respectively, 33.6 and 38.2 percent. (Correspondingly, the share of apprenticeships going to minorities rose from 36.3 percent in 1994 to 61.8 percent in 2014 and was an even higher 66.4 percent in 2012.) Particularly impressive is that the share going to black residents has roughly doubled from 18.3 percent in 1994 to 35.1 percent in 2014. Similarly, Hispanic apprenticeships have risen from the 16.0 percent share in 1994 to the shares in 2012 and 2014, respectively, of 27.6 and 22.2 percent. As these programs remain in place, the entire union construction workforce will become increasingly diverse.

Figure A

Racial composition of New York City registered union apprentices, 1994–2014

Race/ethnicity White Black Hispanic All minorities
1994 63.7% 18.3% 16.0% 36.3%
2004 52.0% 24.4% 20.3% 48.0% 
2012 33.6% 33.7% 27.6% 66.4% 
2014 38.2% 35.1% 22.2% 61.8%
ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Note: "All minorities" includes black, Hispanic, and other races, not including white.

Source: Figure 5 in Fuchs, Warren, and Bayer (2014) based on Figueroa, Grabelsky, and Lamare (2013) and Building and Construction Trades Council of New York (2012, 2014)

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.

Fuchs et al. (2014 page 14) explained this trend, noting

“Labor and contracting officials attribute the increased diversity in the construction industry workforce to several factors, including pre-apprenticeship programs such as [The Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills], the changing demographics of New York City’s population, civil rights lawsuits, and a shift in attitude among union members and their leadership.”

Black earnings in construction

As discussed above, blue-collar black workers are more represented in the union than the nonunion construction sector of New York City, and increasingly so. The forthcoming report uses the same Current Population Survey data to document that union black construction workers earned 36.1 percent more than nonunion black blue-collar construction workers in New York City. Together, the greater employment opportunities and wages for black workers in union construction mean that the African-American community would have far less earnings from the construction sector if it were to be wholly nonunion. In fact, the report concludes that nonunion conditions would reduce black construction sector earnings from $335 million to just $183 million each year, an annual loss of $152 million for the black community. Put a different ways, the hiring patterns and wage levels in union construction boost earnings to the black community by 83 percent, from $183 to $335 million.

Data Appendix

This analysis is based on the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) household survey regularly collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to track unemployment and other labor force characteristics and outcomes, including wages.

The Current Population Survey collects information from roughly 60,000 households each month which produces observations on approximately 170,000 wage earners each year. In order to identify the characteristics of New York City construction employment, union and nonunion, the analysis aggregates ten years of CPS data, the 2006–15 period. The CPS provides information on the age, gender, education, occupation, industry, and geographic location of each wage earner and their employment status (employed, unemployed, not in labor force) and wages. The CPS also provides information on whether a wage earner is a union member or covered by a collective bargaining agreement. If either status is true, we consider the worker in the union sector.

The CPS is the only data source that enables an analysis of the demographic diversity in the union sector and to be able to compare it to the nonunion sector of a particular industry or group of occupations: this analysis examines blue-collar workers ages 18 to 64 in construction occupations (excluding supervisors and those in ‘extraction’) in the construction industry in New York City. The race/ethnic categories are non-Hispanic white, non-black Hispanics, blacks (Hispanic or non-Hispanic), and ‘other non-Hispanics’.

* This report was commissioned by the New York City Building Trades Council (BTC).

Lawrence Mishel is the president of the Economic Policy Institute. Teresa Kroger provided research assistance for the report and this blog post.