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The Promise and Problems of US Construction Industry

A former union leader wrestles with the challenge of making construction work the path to the middle class it once was

Peggy Marco

The Way We Build: Restoring Dignity to Construction Work
By Mark Erlich
University of Illinois Press
160 pages

CONSTRUCTION IS ONE of the most important and least understood sectors in our economy. It is also one of the most visible of all industries. As Mark Erlich observes in The Way We Build: Restoring Dignity to Construction Work, pedestrians on the street are transformed into sidewalk superintendents as they watch skyscrapers rise up from deep urban foundations. But to these casual observers, as well as to many policy makers, industry regulators, and “future of work” enthusiasts, the way our built environment is actually constructed remains something of a mystery. Erlich’s book unravels that mystery by examining the industry’s economics, its production process, and the role of new technologies.

Erlich is the retired secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy. His observations about the industry’s shifting labor relations landscape, the changing demographics of its work force, the impact of immigration, and the lived experience and subculture of construction workers make this book noteworthy.  His analysis of the role unions have historically played in the industry is particularly incisive.

Construction was once one of the most densely unionized sectors of the economy. In the immediate post-World War II era, over 80 percent of the industry was union. In a single generation, the level of unionization in construction fell to less than 20 percent. 

This precipitous decline foreshadowed and tracked with falling union density in the overall economy. Today, private sector unionization stands at about 6 percent of the workforce. Of the 8 million US construction workers, less than 15 percent are now represented by unions.

Today, building trades unions are still a vital part of the construction ecosystem, primarily in urban areas on the east and west coasts and in the industrial heartland. But outside those centers, construction unions have been driven to the margins of the industry. Unions are strong in Boston, but weaker in western Massachusetts; strong in New York City, but weaker in upstate New York; strong in Chicago, but weaker in downstate Illinois.

Erlich — who is also a member of the board of MassINC, the nonprofit civic organization that publishes CommonWealth Beacon — explains how declining levels of construction unionization have undermined labor’s political influence and bargaining strength. As union density, membership and market share have decreased, the one-time promise of good family-supporting jobs has become increasingly elusive. The Way We Build explains how and why wages and benefits have stagnated, jobsite conditions have deteriorated, and coveted construction careers have lost their luster. The heart of this book is captured in its subtitle:  Restoring Dignity to Construction Work.

One of the many strengths of this book is the different lenses through which Erlich views construction. His direct and personal experience working in the Boston area as a carpenter, superintendent, and high-level union leader enables him to construct an unusually rich portrait of the industry. Erlich effectively welds his lived experience as an influential player in the industry with his talents as a writer of history and astute observer of current events.   

His analysis of the growing underground economy in construction reveals the nature and extent of unscrupulous and often illegal practices like misclassification, in which firms treat employees as independent contractors, and payroll fraud. These are so pervasive that he characterizes them as the prevailing “business model” in some sectors of the industry. Combined with the decline of regulatory enforcement, these practices have driven down labor standards and threatened the viability of the many decent contractors competing in the industry.

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The book’s examination of the impact of new technology is both illuminating and something of a challenge for the “future of work” devotees who lack the author’s depth of understanding about if and how the industry is likely to change in the coming decades. He shows how the potential of technological transformation has often gone unrealized in construction. But he also presents promising examples of technical innovations like construction robotics, computer-aided design (CAD), building information modeling (BIM), and 3-D computing that are gaining some traction in the industry.

It is clear that Erlich loves the construction industry. But while working in the trades can be deeply satisfying, he understands that there is nothing intrinsic about a construction job that makes it a good, middle-class career. The Way We Build is filled with powerful stories about the experience of non-union and often undocumented construction workers who endure terrible indignities and hazardous conditions because they lack a collective voice and union representation.    

Erlich tells the tale of one non-union carpenter named Julio Beldi, who worked across New England for over 10 years. He was mostly paid in cash, frequently not paid for weeks, and often paid a fraction of the wages required by law.  Routinely laboring 10- and 12-hour shifts and rarely receiving mandated overtime rates, Julio’s experience was not atypical. What turned his grueling job into a rewarding career? He joined the Carpenters Union and began to enjoy the direct benefits of collective bargaining. 

Julio’s story brings us back to the central and unifying theme of The Way We Build: the critical role building trades unions have played in organizing the industry’s workforce and elevating its conditions of life and labor. An unfortunate part of that story is how building trades unions – once a singularly powerful part of the US labor movement and a dominant force in the industry – were weakened by an unrelenting corporate assault determined to undermine their strength and vitality. 

But Erlich concedes that construction unions were also hampered by a range of internal flaws, including a stubborn resistance to change, a complacency that allowed a non-union market to grow around and away from the union base, and an exclusive model of membership that neglected the need to organize an expanding non-union (and often non-white) work force. As a result, building trades unions represent a shrinking share of the construction labor pool and unionized contractors control a smaller slice of an industry they once dominated. 

The book’s narrative leads to an inescapable question: If building trades unions are the key to restoring dignity to construction work, what can they do differently to reverse their declining power and influence in the industry?  There is no silver bullet or simple answer to that question. Erlich offers a range of innovative organizing, political, and regulatory strategies to help construction unionists recapture lost markets, rebuild bargaining power, and reshape the industry. If successful, the way we build could once again offer construction workers a path to a more dignified and rewarding life.

Jeff Grabelsky is a senior extension associate at the Worker Institute and Climate Jobs Institute at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.