Infrastructure bills are kicking off billions in construction projects. Will workers of color get the jobs?
February 7, 2022
On a recent winter Tuesday just off Boston’s Southeast Expressway, dozens of aspiring carpenters were banging nails, sawing wood and hoisting heavy steel rails to other apprentices at the local union training site. One of them was Annisha Simpson, a 27-year-old from Boston. Simpson is Black and part of a growing number of minority construction workers in the state. ... Mark Erlich, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, said the only way to move the workforce needle is for state agencies to set ambitious goals and then hold their contractors accountable for making sure a larger percentage of minority workers get hired. “In the absence of that kind of intentional policy efforts,” he said, “the industry will continue to evolve very slowly in terms of becoming more diverse.”
Welcome to a construction labor lawyer's life during what's become known as "Striketober." ... This fall, workers in a wide range of industries have walked off the job, from Kaiser Permanente hospitals in California to John Deere factories in Illinois, Iowa and Kansas, to cereal workers at Kellogg's plants in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. ... "What we're facing now gives unions leverage at the bargaining table, whether they strike or not," said Mark Erlich, a fellow in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, and former executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. "It at least will help them get better agreements."
These are unprecedented and challenging times. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues taking its toll, we mourn the loss of thousands of our fellow citizens while applauding the bravery and sacrifice of countless nurses, doctors, orderlies, EMT personnel, and other first responders — along with our neighbors stocking grocery shelves and working check-out lines in supermarkets throughout the country. COVID-19 has changed our world, and many of our industries will never be the same — including construction...In anticipation of the coronavirus taking hold, earlier this year our Northeast Carpenters Training Fund joined forces with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters International Training Center and established a COVID-19 Preparedness training component which has been praised by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and is being used in other states, including Michigan and California...By demanding higher health and safety standards for our members up front, we were able to define the scenario under which many essential job sites remained open. As more and more construction sites open, our on-site union representatives continue to partner with contractors and management to ensure jobs sites are safe and run according to the latest directives from the Center for Disease Control. Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program fellow Mark Erlich said it best recently: “being a union member has been enormously beneficial in the past few weeks.” Erlich predicts the “appeal of unions will be stronger than ever going forward.”
In the span of two months, the coronavirus crisis has demanded sweeping changes from the U.S. construction industry, and experts say many of them will remain in place even after the outbreak recedes. As contractors prepare to return to work on sites that have been shut down by shelter-in-place initiatives, they will face an industry that has been drastically changed by the both public health and economic effects of the pandemic...Since World War II, the percentage of the U.S. construction industry involved in union memberships has steadily declined, from about 87% of the workforce in 1947 to 12.8% in 2018. Nevertheless, since the pandemic began, trade unions have taken on renewed influence in many areas of the country by advocating for members’ best interests in keeping sites operational and safe...During the crisis, unions have provided a voice for workers who are struggling to decide whether they should stay home or go to work, said Mark Erlich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program. Unions also help laborers find new work after a layoff. “Clearly, being a union member has been enormously beneficial in the past few weeks,” he said. The appeal of unions will be stronger than ever going forward, Erlich said, a trend that “will likely come into conflict with cost-cutting measures that construction employers will inevitably be considering once they reckon with the financial losses from the crisis.”
The coronavirus is expanding the safety net
April 7, 2020
Like millions of other US workers, Charlie Burke and Mutwaly Hamid were used to getting up in the morning and putting in long days on the job. But when the coronavirus pandemic shut down huge parts of the economy, they weren’t just left out of work, they were left on their own. As two of the nearly 9 million US workers considered self-employed or independent contractors, Burke and Hamid had no claim on unemployment benefits and quickly found themselves in an economic free fall. Burke, who runs seminars for sales agents and brokers in the real estate industry, says his income is poised to drop by 90 percent this month. For Hamid, the $1,000 or so a week he was making by driving up to 60 hours for Uber and Lyft has gone overnight to zero, leaving him unable to pay his rent for April. The pandemic has exposed big holes in the country’s social safety net, openings that millions of people are now falling through. With nearly 10 million people filing unemployment claims in the past two weeks alone, the federal government is mounting an unprecedented emergency expansion of that safety net for workers. The $2.2 trillion emergency CARES Act approved 10 days ago includes a $350 billion loan program for businesses and extends unemployment pay to self-employed workers, independent contractors, and others not usually eligible for such benefits. Unlike most workers, who are covered by basic protections including unemployment insurance, these people “operate a high wire act with no safety net,” said Mark Erlich, the former head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, who is currently a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.