Hiring union workers doesn’t deter affordable housing

No truth to allegation that employees paid not to work

IN A MARCH 14, 2020, opinion article titled “Union push hinders housing production,” Jason Kauppi, the president of the Merit Construction Alliance of Massachusetts, argues, without any supporting evidence, that certain construction workers are “paid not to work.”

As the principal officer of Bricklayers & Allied Craftsmen Local Union No. 3, which represents more than 3,600 bricklayers, marble, tile and terrazzo workers, waterproofers and restoration specialists in Massachusetts, I feel it is important to set the record straight.

Not mentioned in the article is that the Merit Construction Alliance of Massachusetts is an avowed anti-union association representing only non-union contractors in the construction industry in Massachusetts.  In addition, Kauppi is a vigorous advocate for diminishing the impact and influence of building trades unions in Massachusetts.

Given the history of the alliance and Kauppi, it is no surprise that the article is replete with misstatements, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods.  For example, Kauppi offers only anecdotal evidence that urging developers “to hire union workers has undoubtedly hurt affordable housing production.”  He offers no evidence to support his blanket allegation and, instead, points to the profit motive of developers in substituting commercial space for “less lucrative” affordable housing.

However, the major issue that my union has with the article is the specific mention of bricklayers and their alleged work practices, in particular his reference to “unused support workers” and his gratuitous comment “Think about that.  A worker is paid not to work.” Demonstrating either his lack of knowledge of the construction industry (union or non-union) or a propensity to ignore the facts and, instead, promulgate mistruths, he states that the cost of a bricklayer is $174,180 per year, apparently assuming that every bricklayer who works for a masonry subcontractor works 2,000 hours or better every year.

Kauppi also ignores the fact that Local 3 bricklayers successfully complete a demanding four-year apprenticeship program consisting of 5,000 hours of both classroom and in-the-field training.  Only after successfully completing the program is a bricklayer considered to be a journeyman.  And still very few journeyman bricklayers work a full year. In truth, the average number of hours worked by a union bricklayer in the past few years (which have been unusually busy) is 1,450.  Moreover, the hourly wage negotiated by the union on behalf of its members in Boston is currently $90.35.  The wage package includes the costs for the bricklayer’s pension and annuity contributions, health insurance contributions, apprenticeship and training, and other funds to support the masonry industry none of which are paid to the individual bricklayer. The net result is that the hourly wage paid to bricklayers in the Boston area (it’s less in other parts of Massachusetts) is $54.40 per hour in gross wages before federal and state taxes are deducted.

While $54.40 per hour in gross wages may seem favorable, it should be considered in light of the fact that bricklayers do not get paid when weather prevents their work being performed and do not receive paid vacations or holidays and, until Massachusetts recently adopted an earned sick leave law, pro-rated sick leave.  The end result is that bricklayers are not paid anywhere close to $174,180 per year as claimed by Kauppi.

In addition, a bricklayer’s longevity as a productive wage earner is limited by the arduous and demanding work performed.  Their wage-earning years are often cut short by debilitating injuries they suffer to their backs, knees, shoulders, and hands.  Of course, once they suffer serious injuries, their annual incomes are significantly decreased if not cut short.

Finally, there are no “support workers” on job sites, as stated by Kauppi, and certainly not with respect to bricklayers.  Like other construction workers, bricklayers are only employed on construction sites on an as-needed basis. Mason tenders (members of the Laborers Union) service the needs of bricklayers while working on a job site and are never “paid not to work.”  Indeed, there is not a single union building trade’s collective bargaining agreement that permits non-working tradesmen.

Kauppi’s statement that “In Boston, the tradition of city officials arm-twisting developers to hire union workers has undoubtedly hurt affordable housing production” is not supported by any credible evidence.  In fact, in the past few years, the city of Boston has experienced the construction of more non-union affordable housing than ever before and masonry is not even being used on these projects as the prime building material.

Meet the Author

Charles Raso

President and secretary/treasurer, Bricklayers & Allied Craftsmen Local Union No. 3
Kauppi points to the redevelopment of Suffolk Downs and the construction of Winthrop Center as evidence that somehow union construction trades are causing developers to “skew toward more profitable commercial or high-end residential construction, sacrificing the less-lucrative, affordable housing.”  But, with all due respect to developers, we have seen very few developers who do not maximize the profitability of the projects. It’s not the fault of union building trades that developing commercial space is more lucrative than constructing affordable housing; that’s been the economic reality in this country for more than 100 years.

Kauppi’s opinion piece is just that, an opinion written by an advocate for non-union labor in a slanted and misleading manner. It serves not only to misinform the public about union bricklayers but, more importantly, serves to prejudice the general public (at least the readers of Commonwealth) against union construction workers in general and union bricklayers in particular.  The readers of Commonwealth deserve a more truthful and accurate portrayal of the value of union construction workers in Massachusetts.

Charles Raso is president and secretary treasurer of Bricklayers & Allied Craftsmen Local Union No. 3.