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that, at least in one of our largest and heavily unionized cities, New York City, Alford’s characterization is quite outdated.
This is a question that can only be answered by examining specific local labor markets, where we can compare the demographics of the available workforce to that of the workforce in union and nonunion settings. Unfortunately, the available data do not allow an analysis of specific segments of the construction sector, separating out, for instance, what is happening in heavy construction or public works versus residential housing. To look at local areas requires aggregating many years of data to obtain adequate sample sizes, which we have done by using data for the entire 2002-11 period. Our first exploration is for New York City, a heavily unionized city that allows us an adequate sample of wage and salary workers, ages 18 to 64.
The table below provides data on the black share of employment in New York City, both in construction and in all industries, broken down into two educational categories: those with a high school education (or less) and those with at least some schooling beyond high school, whether they received a college degree or not. I am not sure these are the best educational categories—they are our starting point, and will probably be altered in further work. It is useful to have some ‘skill’ or education categories so one can identify a specific market, say for unskilled or semi-skilled work (which the ‘high school or less’ is a proxy, though a poor one). Later work will explore breakdowns by occupation and other education categories. Rather than just identify the employment pattern of union construction employers, the table also provides the pattern among nonunion employers as a point of comparison.