Opinion: Will Prevailing Wage Legislation Help or Hurt Communities of Color?

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Image by Lisa Risager; manipulation by City Limits

Far too often and for far too long black and brown communities have been taken for granted, undervalued and overlooked in the political process. This time it’s different! With the growing controversy around the Prevailing Wage legislation, clergy leaders across the city and state are demanding further investigation. The 400 Foundation, an ecumenical non-profit fighting for economic justice in the real estate trades I helped found, is calling on elected officials to answer key questions such as: Who stands to benefit from Prevailing Wage? How will prevailing wage impact the housing crisis in our communities? Will prevailing wage continue to hold NYCHA resident’s hostage and overdue improvements economically unfeasible?

If state lawmakers can’t adequately or satisfactorily answer these questions, they must take a hard look at new legislation to expand prevailing wage mandates on construction projects in New York City and think about what impacts it will have on locally based workers, residents of color, and minority- and women-owned businesses.

The bottom line is that I believe progressives do not become progressives by exclusively catering to the building and construction trade unions interests, regardless of the merit or cause. I believe they can and should define themselves by seeking out and advancing policies that do the most good for the vulnerable populations who need their support and vote them into office.

The problem here is that when it comes to today’s construction industry in New York City, handing more work to the unions does not actually align with many progressive ideals. This is because the majority of opportunities for locally based workers of color and MWBEs are found not in union construction, but instead in the open shop, or non-union side of the industry.

Industry surveys show that approximately three-quarters, or roughly 75,000 of open shop construction workers in New York City are Black or Hispanic and actually live in one of the five boroughs of our city. The same cannot be said of union construction workers, who are more likely to be white and live outside New York City in places like New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, and even as far away as Pennsylvania.

Before new legislation is passed, serious consideration through a hearing on the following points should be addressed:
• Livable minimum wage and benefits on every publicly funded construction site for all workers,
• Expanded funding for workforce development into advanced jobs and training for minorities and women in the development and construction industries,
• More than mere lip service but actual mandatory and enforced minority and local hiring.

Additionally, I want all 32 building and construction trade unions to open their books and reveal the actual numbers of minorities and women who will be receiving the prevailing wage if no additional hiring happened, and where the current recipients of the prevailing wage who are working on New York City projects live.

To our legislators I say, proceed with caution and true investigation into the relevant questions that affect our communities:

(1) How many new minorities, women, and New York City residents will be hired by the unions to receive the prevailing wage?

(2) How many minorities and women will lose their present open shop jobs by the passing of prevailing wage?

(3) Will the passing of prevailing wage reduce the number of low-income and affordable housing units coming onto the market?

(4) Will the passing of prevailing wage cause a construction slow-down and industry downturn?

Until these issues are addressed in full, it is not possible for us to see these proposals as representative of a progressive step forward for communities of color. That is why there must be a much more robust discussion of the relevant bills before they advance any further.

Rev. Reginald Bachus is associate pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and a founding member of the 400 Foundation.

One thought on “Opinion: Will Prevailing Wage Legislation Help or Hurt Communities of Color?

  1. I very much appreciate the article – it raised a very important aspect of the prevailing wage legislation that I was unaware of.

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