Racial Underrepresentation In Construction: How Do The Union And Nonunion Sectors Compare?

Recently, I have undertaken some research on racial under-representation in the construction industry, and some interesting early findings are worth sharing. Construction is a sector that has historically excluded black workers—including the unionized portion of the industry. 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that, at least in one of our largest and heavily unionized cities, New York City, Alford’s characterization is quite outdated.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.


Share of blacks in all jobs and in construction by union status, New York City

Education Total Employment Total Union Nonunion
All 23.3% 16.5% 21.3% 13.8%
High school or less 25.3% 14.0% 16.6% 12.8%
Some college or more 21.9% 22.0% 29.3% 16.4%

Source:  EPI analysis of CPS ORG data covering 2002-2011

The key benchmark is that black workers comprise 23.3 percent of all employed workers in New York City over this time period, meaning that there is under-representation if a lower share is employed in a sector or occupation. Under-representation can occur because workers are not qualified (say, do not have as many college or advanced degrees) or because hiring practices are discriminatory. Examining the pattern among workers with similar education is a blunt way to control for qualifications.

Blacks certainly are under-represented in construction, the hold only 16.5 percent of jobs, far short of their 23.3 percent representation in the workforce. However, the under-representation is very severe in the nonunion sector, where blacks hold just 13.8 percent of the jobs while the under-representation in the union sector is much more modest—21.3 versus 23.3 percent. The degree of black under-representation in the two construction sectors, union and nonunion, is portrayed in the graph.

black construction

Looking at specific education groups generally confirms the results. For construction employment overall, black under-representation seems more severe among those with a high school degree or less and not present at all for the group with at least some college education. Black workers clearly have a harder time finding employment in the nonunion sector than in the union sector, regardless of education. In fact, it appears that black workers with at least some college education have a greater share of work in the union construction sector. As noted, these preliminary results need to be examined with occupation breakdowns and other education breakdowns (e.g., adding in those with ‘some college’ to the lower education group and leaving the higher group with those with at least a college degree).

One last check on the results is needed to compensate for some weakness in the data. The Current Population Survey we are analyzing (the same one that produces the monthly unemployment rate) assigns workers to a location according to where they live not where they work. Therefore, the analysis in the table examines New York City residents. It is certainly possible that construction workers in the city live outside of the city and in the greater metropolitan area. For that reason I also examined the employment patterns for the entire New York metropolitan area. Much the same pattern emerges, with black workers comprising 16.6 percent of employed workers but having 14.0 percent of the jobs in union construction and just 8.9 percent of the jobs in nonunion construction.