New York City Worker Safety Protected By Labor Unions
Benefits of Unions in New York’s Construction Industry
Throughout our country’s history, Americans have come together in support of basic human rights. In the labor force, unions have historically been a powerful way for workers to join together to advocate for better conditions in their industries. Most modern American labor unions are considered business unions; business unions strive to protect their workers through collective bargaining, which is the negotiation of employment conditions between employers and an organized group of employees. Through collective bargaining, labor unions fight to provide workers with benefits such as fair wages, safe working conditions, health coverage, and more.
In New York City, construction workers especially benefit from the increased protection and safety regulations that come from union membership. Construction unions are considered “craft” or “trade” unions, which get their power by taking control of the supply of skilled labor in a specific industry. In addition to negotiating for workers’ rights, trade unions serve as an employment placement service for workers. Employers can contact a specific trade’s labor hall directly, and any workers who are currently not working will be referred to the job. This is especially helpful in the construction industry where workers frequently switch employers after completing each job or at times when a worker is on furlough, a temporary layoff from work.
Today, local New York City labor unions continue to influence public policy and advocate for safe work conditions for construction laborers. To understand the benefits of being a union member today, it is important to understand the history that brought about the need for unions and how laborers have accomplished their goals by working in solidarity.
History of Labor Unions in New York City
New Yorker Samuel Gompers, the founder and first president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called New York City “the cradle of the American labor movement.” In New York’s first Labor Day parade in 1882, 25,000 workers marched for the abolition of child labor and an eight-hour workday under a Knights of Labor banner. This, among other efforts, gave New York its reputation as a labor-friendly city.
The 19th century saw modest progress in worker efforts to improve wages, hours, and workplace safety. The event that really galvanized unions into action and facilitated their acceptance by the public was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Management of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a garment factory whose staff was mainly composed of immigrant women, had locked all but one of the fire exits to prevent alleged employee theft. As a result, 145 workers were trapped and fatally burned or jumped to their deaths when a fire erupted at the lower Manhattan factory. The tragedy led New York State to pass 36 new laws to strengthen worker safety in the years that followed. It was a pivotal event in the history of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the first union to have a primarily female membership.
There are many stirring stories about efforts to improve the conditions of skilled workers in New York City in the past. Today, New York continues to be a labor-friendly city, ranking second in the nation in union membership with 1,732,000 union members in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, of which more than 100,000 belong to construction trades. Although union membership has declined since the labor movement’s peak in the mid 20th century, there are still benefits to being a union member today.
Benefits of Joining a Construction Labor Union Today
Construction workers regularly face risks in the workplace, especially in New York City where more than 280 construction injuries occurred just in 2019. Notably, union construction workers were found to be five times less likely to have a fatal accident than non-union workers.
Using their collective power, labor unions are able to offer their members certain benefits, with conditions. Generally, union construction workers are required to work a certain number of hours and pay monthly dues to maintain membership. The local unions that construction workers join depend on their trade. For example, in NYC the Local Union 78 is specific to work dealing with asbestos, lead, and hazardous waste, while the Local Union 1010 deals with highway, street, and road construction. Others include:
- Local Union 3 Electricians
- Local Union 1 Plumbers
- Locals 40 & 361 Iron workers
- Local 147 Sandhogs
- Local 1 Bricklayers
- Locals 20 & 45 Carpenters
Once a worker becomes a union member, they will have access to benefits that usually include the following:
Access to professional training and education.
Before being granted membership, union applicants often have to complete a certain amount of training and educational courses within their specific trade. Many labor unions offer free continued learning courses to workers. Higher levels of training help keep workers safe on the job and provide increased job opportunities.
If a worker chooses to gain union membership through an apprenticeship, which is the most common method, they will be able to earn a salary while completing on-the-job training and classroom instruction on their trade. Upon completing an apprenticeship program, a worker is considered a qualified tradesperson and receives certifications that make them eligible for professional pay.
More work opportunities.
Union labor halls serve as a placement service for members. Workers who may currently be unemployed are referred to jobs that are brought to the labor hall. Some employers that have contracts with labor unions have “closed shop” policies, which means they only hire union members. If a worker is hired by a closed shop employer, they are required to join that specific union within a given time span.
Unions have contracts with employers that spell out members’ hourly wages. These contracts are generally very solid and provide workers with fair, livable wages. On average, workers covered by union contracts earn about 20-30 percent more in wages than their nonunion peers. A 2013 wage and benefits comparison done by the Construction Labor Research Council found a union construction worker earned 22 percent more in wages than a nonunion worker.
Health coverage and pension plans.
Union laborers are more likely to receive employment-based health benefits than nonunion laborers, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Union laborers are also much more likely to have pension plans for retirement. In 2015, union construction workers were eligible for and participated in retirement plans at a higher rate than nonunion workers (55 percent versus 26 percent for eligibility and 47 percent versus 21 percent for participation).
Protection on work sites.
With the power of collective bargaining, union members are given a voice that they can use to request work site changes. For example, if a worker would like a certain safety precaution brought onto a work site, their employer is far less likely to accept their request individually. However, if the entire workforce joins together to request the safety measure, then there is a higher chance that their employer will comply.
Additionally, union work sites usually have a shop steward present to take care of the other employees. The shop steward is a union representative whose role varies depending on the union’s guidelines. Generally, the shop steward will inform non-management employees of their rights under the union’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), enforce the conditions of the CBA, and ensure that the work site complies with federal, state, and local laws and regulations.
There is undeniable proof that the support of a union leads to safer work sites. Statistically, there are an alarming number of serious injuries and fatalities suffered by non-union workers at construction sites whereas the union sites are generally perceived as being very safe. This disparity is by no means coincidental.
Union contracts protect employees from unjust termination. Nonunion employees are generally considered “at-will” employees, meaning they can be fired without warning for almost any reason. If a union employee believes they were fired without just cause, they have the option to request that their union files a grievance against the employer. The union will do so if they believe that there is a legitimate case.
Union Achievements Today
Unions have been strong advocates for federal labor safety laws, such as the one that authorized the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971. They continue to make their voices heard in New York and throughout the United States on issues related to worker safety and on-the-job hazards. For example:
- Several building trades unions protested after a worker fell from scaffolding and broke his leg on a non-union job on West 50th Street in Manhattan. (2014)
- Local 78 of the Asbestos, Lead & Hazardous Waste Workers placed a large inflatable rat in front of a residential building on Manhattan’s West End Avenue to protest the safety record of the contractor renovating the structure. (2011)
- Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union publishes health and safety newsletters for members. (ongoing)
- Local 237 of the Teamsters Union offers a safety and health guide. (ongoing)
- The United Federation of Teachers offers school safety training for both teachers and administrators. (ongoing)
- New York construction unions, like the ironworkers, latherers, sandhogs, electricians, painters, carpenters, steamfitters, and sheet metal workers continue to fiercely advocate on behalf of worker safety laws like New York’s Scaffold Law. (ongoing)
- $12,000,000 settlement for a Local 147 tunnel worker who was injured after falling 40 feet during an excavation project on New York’s Number 7 subway line
- $11,500,000 settlement for a union construction worker who suffered severe wrist injuries while using a defective saw during a high-rise building construction project
- $10,875,000 jury verdict for a Local 731 member who fell from a building rooftop and was impaled by unguarded steel rebar
- $7,400,000 settlement in a Labor Law 240(1) case involving a union sheet metal worker who required spinal surgery after falling from a store rooftop in Brooklyn
- $7,000,000 settlement for a union carpenter who was injured after a metal clamp fell and struck his face on a Queens construction site
As these select examples show, unions continue to be champions of workplace safety; it is a core value of the labor movement. Keeping workers safe on the job has been a goal of labor unions since long before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The movement continues today through protests, contract negotiations, and member education – activities that improve safety for union and non-union members alike. Union efforts to protect the safety of all workers continue to be critical.
The lawyers at Block O’Toole & Murphy have long been aligned with beliefs of labor unions on workers’ rights. Many of our attorneys are members of the New York State Trial Lawyer Association’s (NYSTLA) Labor Law Committee, which proactively works on upholding laws that protect workers. Partner Daniel O’Toole serves as Co-Chairman of the committee. Our legal team is also dedicated to helping find justice for workers who have their rights infringed upon and have litigated numerous cases for union members hurt in on-the-job accidents.
Top case results for union members include: