Has overall construction safety declined in New York City, or has the building boom produced more accidents because there are more projects? Ask various stakeholders in the industry and you’ll get conflicting answers as to the cause of, and the proper cure for, the uptick in serious and fatal injuries. But as the debate rages, a major player seems to increasingly favor “open shop” companies who employ union and nonunion labor.
According to Politico.com, “Lou Coletti, president of the Building Trade Employers’ Association…made clear his organization is embracing ‘open shop’ companies whose workers are not required to be in unions and typically charge lower rates.” Declaring that BTEA is a “contractor group, not a labor group,” Coletti admitted that “Ninety-five percent of [membership] are building open shop.” In fact, BTEA is made up of 27 contractor organizations representing 1,700 firms employing 120,000 workers.
But Coletti’s declaration seems to set him against BTEA’s express recognition “that a vibrant unionized construction industry is essential to the economic future of New York City.” Is unionization now contrary to the goal of a vibrant construction industry? Coletti seems to think so, if this quotation from Politico is accurate: “We prefer doing a job with 100 percent building trades, but if we don’t have 100 percent of them who allow us to be cost-competitive, we reach the point…that we can no longer afford not to compete for that work.”
But how does the open shop enter into the safety debate? Critics of nonunion labor claim the workers are untrained in basic safety procedures and are easily exploited because they don’t know their rights to a safe work environment. However, in the absence of data showing accidents happen more often at nonunion worksites or to nonunion workers, union leadership has very little leverage.
As business owners, we understand that cost-effectiveness is necessary to compete in any industry. But as attorneys for injured construction workers, we hate to see economic concerns carry more weight in the industry than worker safety. We hope the legislative reforms the city is contemplating for the industry are not simply political theater, but truly address the real causes of workplace accidents.