- In its analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, including both commercial and residential construction, the Associated General Contractors of America reported that union representation of construction workers (+0.6%) and construction union membership (+0.7%) grew from 2015 to 2016.
- Median weekly construction industry wages also increased from $784 to $822 (4.8%) in 2016. Union-represented workers' wages increased 0.2% less than nonunion worker wages, but union workers' wages overall were 47% higher.
- BLS data indicates a seesaw movement in construction union membership over the last 10 years, but construction's 13.9% union membership is the fourth highest of all BLS industry categories, behind utilities (21.5%), transportation and warehousing (18.4%) and telecommunications (14.6%).
Despite the slight rise in construction union membership, the overall union membership rate across U.S. industries fell 0.4% (to a share of 10.7%) in 2016.
The increase in construction union membership last year came as a surprise, as reports from companies and trade groups in typical union stronghold cities, such as New York and Boston, have reported that unions are slowly losing their grip on private markets in those areas. Major firms are reportedly considering allowing collective bargaining agreements to expire due to higher labor costs. Although the number of union-exclusive private projects is dwindling in favor of open-shop models, unions still dominate public projects.
Union versus nonunion labor is an ongoing controversy in the industry. Organized labor groups justify the higher wages required for their workers with claims that they provide a better, safer product than nonunion workers. However, proponents of the open-shop philosophy argue that nonunion job sites are just as safe.
Private construction industry employer groups and construction trade organizations often end up on the opposite sides of certain labor-related issues, particularly in traditionally union-heavy areas like New York City. Worker safety has been the latest dust-up between the two sides after the New York City Council, in response to an uptick in construction-related deaths over the last few years, introduced several measures aimed to better protect workers.
One of those provisions, the requirement that workers employed at buildings more than 10 stories complete apprenticeship programs, saw immediate pushback from the Real Estate board of New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio and other private industry organizations. De Blasio said that nearly half of the apprenticeship programs in the city were sponsored by unions, which would make it difficult for nonunion employers to comply. Instead, he suggested increasing inspections and penalties, along with implementing stricter regulations.
Unions and employer groups are also at opposing sides of the recently reignited project labor agreement debate. Earlier in January, a coalition of 12 construction industry and other private sector groups sent a letter to President Donald Trump and requested that he rescind President Barack Obama's Executive Order 13502, which encourages federal agencies to require project labor agreements on large-scale projects. The coalition said the repeal of the federal PLA mandate would eliminate the 12%-18% in extra costs that these agreements trigger and would "create a level playing field" for both union and nonunion contractors.