Thursday Nov 30

BOOK REVIEW: What is Dignity at Work?

A Review of Mark Erlich’s  “The Way We Build: Restoring Dignity to Construction Workers”

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.  They want rain without thunder and lightning. . . . This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical;  but there must be a struggle. - Frederick Douglass

That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great. - Willa Cather

Construction sites are locations of contestation.  Here, economic and class issues of the time are played out.  From the building of the Egyptian pyramids to the construction of sports venues for the men’s World Cup in Qatar, abundant forms of human struggle and human creativity are present.  Often site-specific construction takes on a global character, as the workforce is intimately connected with complex movements in global immigration, forced or unforced.  For example, in the United States, waves of immigrant workers have passed through the ranks of construction workers, from impoverished English coal miners and Swedish potato farmers to today’s workers from the Global South.  Prior to the Civil War, slaves built many of the grand buildings of the South and the mansions of the Southern aristocracy.  And themes from construction feature in political narratives, cultural works, and metaphor.  Press stories of pro-war, anti-student misogynistic “hard hats” abounded in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Mafia participation in construction in northeastern cities is showcased in many popular movies.  And construction terms are used throughout everyday discussions.  Construction is a major part of our political and cultural fields.

To understand the often-complex issues in construction, a review of how construction actually works is provided by Mark Erlich in his book, “The Way We Build: Restoring Dignity to Construction Workers.”  Erlich has spent a large part of his life in the construction industry, mainly in the carpentry craft in the northeast, and provides a nice introduction for anyone seeking to understand how construction operates today. He has been a worker, a site boss, and a union official.  It is always refreshing to see someone who has done the work, write about the work. 

As the title suggests, the focus of the book is to define the ecosystem of how buildings and other large structures are built in the US today.  Reviewing major issues in construction today, Erlich exposes the fantasy of robot-built buildings.[1]  The architect Walter Gropius proclaimed one hundred years ago that construction would shed its gritty nature and become pristinely modular: Erlich shows that Gropius was wrong. For workers, the magical concept of the “Future of Work,” embraced by Silicon Valley, wealthy foundations, and corporate think tanks, looks a lot like the “Past and Present of Work.” Certain functions are computerized, and nearly all workers carry smart phones, but the capitalist dream of eliminating troublesome human labor has not and cannot occur.[2] For workers, construction work remains “dusty, dirty, demanding, and dangerous.” Like the Navajo railroad workers who repair and replace tracks in the desert southwest, construction workers cannot be replaced by the dreams of the well-heeled participants in the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work program.[3]

Erlich’s book covers areas in which I have experience.  Having worked in factories and served as a union steward during the 1970’s, I have practiced law for unions in the South for the last forty years. The last ten of these have been mainly focused on work for construction unions. During the middle 2000’s, I took a break to study at Harvard’s Divinity School.  For me, in addition to being a site of struggle and a site where workers can earn enough for a decent living, construction is a fertile area in which to consider our human condition.  The book title’s tag line, “Restoring Dignity to Construction Workers,” deserves attention. 

What is dignity for workers, especially construction workers, in today’s rapacious economic system?

The first step in considering the meaning of dignity is to recognize the skills of construction workers.  Construction work demands talent and competence.  As Natasha Iskandar argues in her book on construction workers in Qatar, “Skill is the marrow of production. . . , an attention to skill and skill development can highlight the lived experience of working and the power dynamics at the worksite.”[4]  Iskander found that Qatari managers believed that their workers were unskilled and fungible.  Yet, her in-person investigations showed her the opposite was the case. In my experience, construction workers recognize their skill. One of the terms of self-description for Hispanic union drywallers I represent in Texas is “maestro” – the teacher.  Having others recognize this skill is an important step towards dignity.

In the US, however, construction workers are often derided as unskilled, especially laborers, painters, drywallers, and roofers.  Recently, working with organizers for the Central South Regional Council of Carpenters (CSCRC), we caught contractors cheating at a public building in Potter County, Texas, acting in violation of even the pathetically weak labor laws of the state of Texas.  Workers were being paid as independent contractors, and given checks on Friday that they could cash, for a fee, at a local restaurant named the “Happy Burrito.”  As the legal process progressed, the last step was a hearing before the County Commission in Amarillo.  Not surprisingly, the commissioners voted against the workers.  One of the commissioners explained his vote by saying that these workers did not “deserve” the prevailing wage of $25 an hour.  For their skill level he bleated, the $17 an hour without benefits they were being paid was too much. 

Of course, dignity means the ability to earn a living wage at work.  For many of the workers I work with now, it is only a living wage that allows their family to stay together, and their benefits from unionized health and pension funds are a crucial part of a dignified life.  The pressures on the working class are extraordinary today.  In these times of deficient public schools, widespread availability of opioids and fentanyl, and pernicious social media, without having parents who earn a living wage, it is nearly impossible for kids to stay away from the life-wrecking evils that infect our society.  Helpfully, Erlich looks closely at the exploitative business model of wage theft, which is widespread and antithetical to economic justice at work.  Recently I have seen developers, politicians, contractors, and even non-profits and progressive religious institutions operate or enable the system of cheating on wages and benefits for those at the lowest levels of construction work.  In this system of misclassification, workers are treated as little businesses, independent contractors.  Unfortunately, some naïve progressives and labor law professors have helped to enable this wage cheating by advocating for an expansion of the gig economy and cheering its “freedom and flexibility.”[5]  For anti-worker politicians, like those on the current Texas Workforce Commission, for example, applying this gig worker analysis to construction workers is a dream come true.  Fortunately, the current federal administration is pushing back against this trend.[6] 

Dignity means the ability to stay safe on the job.  Construction is dangerous.  Ehrlich recounts the preventable deaths in the building of the Hard Rock Casino in New Orleans in 2019.  On non-union sites workers do not have a structural tool to protest unsafe conditions.  OSHA is little more than a phantom, a word wafting through the wind: the agency has been emaciated since the Reagan administration.  In Texas, for example, safety in construction is worsening as the state legislature has barred local cities and counties from implementing rules for the simplest local issues, such as water breaks during times of high heat.  Workers’ compensation, the legal recourse for injuries at work throughout the country, is generally weaker than it was when the laws were passed nearly one hundred years ago.

Little noticed, the prevalence of suicide is an overlooked tragedy for construction worker families.  A recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that over fifty per one hundred thousand construction workers commit suicide a year, over four times the national average.  Construction is the second worst industry in the US for suicides, and in the United Kingdom construction sites have been forced to post notices about symptoms of potential suicides so that workers can recognize and assist at-risk co-workers.

During the COVID lockdown the question of which workers are “essential” played out, as many states ordained construction workers to be essential and thus able to work and travel during the lockdown, while other states took an opposite approach.  Many workers got infected with COVID there and brought the virus home to their families.   Dignity requires a safe place to work.

A topic seldom mentioned when considering the meaning of dignity at work is the moral dimension in the industry.  Early in his book, Erlich quotes a construction worker interviewed by Studs Terkel who says that construction work is “food for your soul that you know you did it well.”  For a working-class family to walk or drive by a gleaming building, knowing that mom or dad was a part of building it is a wonderful source of pride. In a time in which manual labor is derided as less “meritorious” than the skills learned from wealthy parents or the receipt of legacy admissions to Ivy League institutions, being able to see and to brag to your family about being part of a building is a brick in the construction of a dignified working-class life.

Dignity comes from the moral education that is often provided in the apprenticeship training of the unionized construction industry.    Anti-union construction companies generally refuse to provide comprehensive training to workers.  Training is expensive, and as construction workers often move from job to job, these employers consider it a waste of “shareholder value” to engage in regular training. Construction unions have a historical connection to the guilds of old, even if they are sometimes ridiculed as just places in which construction nepo-babies are trained.  In fact, their apprenticeship programs provide something else.  For hundreds of years human have wrestled with how to inculcate younger members of society with values.  Churches and schools have such systems, but they are generally in decline today.  For younger construction workers, the apprenticeship system is one of the most helpful in this regard.[7]  Craft skills are taught here, to be sure, but “how to act” is taught as well.[8]

Dignity means a consideration of the creativity of workers.  Songs of working people in this country, from times of slavery through the twentieth century, underscored the dignity workers were demanding.  For many factory workers, one of the reasons that repetitive assembly line work is so mind-numbing is that they are unable to exercise creativity on the assembly line.  In construction boring repetition is not always the case and construction workers are often able to be creative at work and in their apprenticeship programs.   As Iskandar argues, “Skill is where worker autonomy, and worker expression of initiative and creativity” exist.[9]  One place to see this is to visit a union apprenticeship center.  In the carpentry craft, for example, workers are often encouraged to use their creativity in honing their skills.[10]  

Crucially, dignity means attention to diversity.  Many construction unions were tinged with racism during the civil rights era.  My father, one of the original southern union lawyers, quit representing a few construction unions in Arkansas during the 1960’s and 1970’s because of their unwillingness to stand against racism in their locals.  There were exceptions, such as the state Teamster local whose leader was a staunch advocate of integration.  Today, many officials who could not rid themselves of this scourge are retired or deceased.  The makeup of the workforce has changed, and now many southern construction unions are majority-minority.  The CSCRC carpenters’ union covers the difficult states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.  A view of its local leadership reveals a rainbow of genders and ethnic groups.  Further, in many locations, construction work is becoming a Hispanic craft with Spanish the lingua franca of the job site.  The Instagram accounts of Hispanic workers in southern and western unions feature creative posts proclaiming “Brown Power,” and “Fighting for the Hispanic Working Class.”  My experience with Hispanic culture is that it is influenced by Catholic culture and includes a love for “familia” and the “communidad.”  It is a short leap from these concepts to the ideology of “all for one, and one for all” unionism.

Dignity means focusing on the needs of women workers. The number of women in unions and in their leadership is increasing, and specific policies to assist women workers are being pursued actively.  For example, in the states covered by the union-affiliated health trust funds of the CSCRC, women’s health audits have been completed.  All benefits were medically reviewed to be sure they met the needs of women who were union or family members.  Over twenty changes were suggested, and all were implemented. This benefit model, run by workers and union-signatory employers, can fashion health insurance appropriate for construction workers and their families.  Further, this union, along with others, is in the forefront of exploring solutions to the childcare needs of members, as insufficient affordable childcare is one of the major impediments for women hoping to make a life in construction work.[11]

Dignity at a working-class job means the ability to act in solidarity with fellow workers.  Being able to powerfully join with workers who do what you do is the best protection for gaining and protecting dignity at work. Working class solidarity involves a structure to care for the “lost, the least, and the last.”  Unlike other institutions, unions strive to protect the most vulnerable in their ranks, and actively fight for their dignity. There are few places in contemporary society where caring for our less fortunate sisters and brothers is baked in. Most corporations and institutions toss out the less meritorious, and today our streets are filled with our fellow human beings who have some kind of problem that will not allow them to fully run in today’s hamster wheel of life.  The union slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” is a direct response to “look out for number one.”  It may sound corny, but our humanness can only be defined in relation to the Other, and one cannot overemphasize the importance of this when working to acquire dignity. Yet, many labor intellectuals have been seduced by a vision of labor rights as individualistic ones.  Capitalists and their apologists know this, and many of their attacks on workers and unions today are framed around a call for worker rights, such as the “right” to be non-union.  But for workers the issue is solidarity, and their personal dignity can only be found in the presence of collective dignity.

Securing dignity means honestly facing obstacles, and there are a number.  Some unions continue to fight among themselves. Changing demographics have brought wonderful changes as well as new challenges. Some racism from white workers certainly continues, though it is a fraction of the racism oozing from the wealthy in the South.  And, with these changing demographics sometimes come with occasional conflicts among people of color on construction sites. Construction unions understand that they have had an aging demographic, and considering this, they are making strides to bring more young people in their trades.  Yet this new union “Starbucks generation” has a different idea about hierarchy and about construction’s military-like work practices.  Finally, some corruption exists in unions, though it is much reduced from the past and exponentially below current corruption on Wall Street or on D.C.’s K Street.  In my practice, corruption mainly occurs when an occasional local union office staffer gets behind on their credit cards and tries to temporarily make it up with the union’s kitty, and in the penumbra of the “coyote” system of wage theft in which unknowing immigrant workers are surreptitiously told to pay a third-party to get work.

Fortunately, bright spots are glowing.  Wages are up for construction workers.  Benefits are up for unionized workers.  Many construction unions are gaining “market share” in difficult places as well as “fauxgressive” cities like Austin, Texas.  The exact reasons for this progress are difficult to disentangle, but several bear scrutiny. First, there is more large construction work today than in decades than in recent periods.  The gigantic infrastructure legislation spearheaded by President Joe Biden is leading to a building boom, which requires the skilled workforce of union members. Most of the programs contain labor protections, including attention to apprenticeship programs, wage protections, and childcare.  Of course, anti-union employers and politicians are feverishly working to ignore or undo the protections: but pro-worker moves always face resistance in a capitalist society.  Further, there has been a sea change in worker and union attitudes on issues such as immigration.  In the 1980’s, while working as a letter carrier in Houston, some of my Black, white, and even US-born Hispanic coworkers from South Texas were conflicted about immigration.  Generally, this is no longer the case.  Members and leaders in the craft unions I work with are firmly on the side of justice for immigrants, and we work on projects to holistically assist immigrants gain access to good paying union jobs and fulfilling lives.  Finally, while not all attitudes toward accelerating cultural issues have changed, attitudes to the gender continuum have.  Many workers now have a child or grandchild who is gay.  The love of a family member can open a heart, changing one’s attitude to family and non-family members alike.

One of the few failures in the book is Ehrlich’s misunderstanding of the construction workplace in the South.  Recently Barbara Kingsolver, the southern novelist, decried the lack of understanding by northern liberals of the South and her region of Appalachia. This book suffered a similar malady.  Many progressives outside the South see it as a different country, and in many ways it is.  The pressure cooker of a history of slavery, racism, and often brutal repression has twisted many people and institutions.  Global companies reinforce historical problems as they are all too happy to take advantage of reactionary Southern politics, even as they extoll their progressive values in Boston or Berlin.  In discussing the South, Ehrlich jarringly lauds an anti-union southern construction magnate and a trendy, yet ineffective program of a workers’ center, not the worker-led unions in the South.  Ehrlich’s Harvard program, which receives hundreds of thousands of foundation dollars, is a center of activity for replacing worker-led unions with a philanthropic labor movement beholden to foundations and led by graduates of prestigious colleges, not workers.[12]  But, neither a paternalistic dependence on “good” anti-union employers nor on organizations funded by tax-free profits of the wealthy can assist in producing lasting change for the workers of the South.[13] These corporate owners and funders want to domesticate worker power, while being sure that corporate structures are not threatened.[14]  Dignity cannot be attained without agency, and agency cannot be achieved by paternalism.

 Of course, strengthening unions is tough and messy stuff.  And, in the South, maintaining the advancing momentum will be difficult.  Yet, for all their flaws, unions are the only solid location in which workers have agency at work.  

Overall, Ehrlich’s book is a valuable topical snapshot of construction that will assist researchers in the years to come.  His description of major issues in construction employment such as wage theft and tax fraud should be read by policymakers, and these cruel practices should be immediately stopped.  The book sets the table for more discussions on how worker dignity and power is actually achieved, which is always helpful for any movement which faces difficult challenges.

Jay Youngdahl is a labor lawyer for workers and unions, including the Carpenters Union, as well as photographer, writer, and artist.


[1] Erlich expands on this theme for the business community in “Can the Construction Industry Be Disrupted,” Harvard Business Review, July 10. 2023.

[2] Issues of replacement of workers by machines always have been around. In their union meetings, workers in the mid-twentieth century sang the song, “Automation,” written by Joe Glazer.  In this song, after describing his terror at the invasion of robots into the workplace, the final lines sung by the factory worker to his wife are, “I thank the Lord that love’s still made in the good old-fashioned way.”  See, “Songs of Work and Freedom,” Dolphin Books, Doubleday & Company, 1960, p. 146.

[3] See,  For a description of the lives of Navajo railroad track workers, see Jay Youngdahl, “Working on the Railroad: Walking in Beauty: Navajos, Hozho, and Track Work,” Utah State University Press, 2011.

[4] Natasha N. Iskander, “Does Skill Make Us Human? Migrant Workers in 21st-Century Qatar and Beyond,” Princeton University Press, 2021, p. 5.

[5] See, Darwin BondGraham and Jay Youngdahl, “When Labor Groups and Silicon Valley Capitalists Join Forces to “Disrupt” Protections for Employee,” In These Times, December 4, 2015.

[6] Both the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board are helpfully taking up this issue. i.e, see, The Atlanta Opera, Inc. and Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Union, Local 798, IATSE. Case 10–RC–276292, Issued, June 13, 2023

[7] Several unions, often coordinated by the North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU), have built “pre-apprenticeship” programs to prepare workers to learn construction skills.  This is necessary given the erosion of education in the public schools that workers’ kids attend as well as the high number of workers who have spent time in America’s carceral systems.  For example, see,

[8] For a deeper dive into apprenticeship-type programs and the development of moral habits, see writing by the Canadian philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, such as “Whose Justice, Whose Rationality,” University of Notre Dame Press; 1988.

[9] Iskandar at 5.

[10] So impressed by this, after visiting many different craft centers while doing legal work I began an artistic project of making small photo books, “zines,” from images in these centers, which I send to the workers and trainers.

[11] NABTU has launched childcare pilots in New York and Milwaukee to recruit and retain more female members.

[12] For a longer look at one of their initiatives, see, Jay Youngdahl, “Harvard Wants to Save the Working Class,” Jacobin, October 15, 2018.  Foundations and their grantees now provide an entire industry of jobs for well-meaning activist intellectuals. So, it is hard to expect reliance on the philanthropy industry to change. As Upton Sinclair famously wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” For an early review of the movement to replace the union movement with the philanthropic labor movement, see, Jay Youngdahl, “Is a Progressive Phoenix Rising? The New Labor Movement is Approaching,” Social Policy, Winter, 2015.

[13] The book, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” Vintage Publishing, 2018, by former McKinsey consultant Anand Giridharadas, is an asset for understanding today’s philosophy and limits of philanthropic “generosity.”  Many of the stories, such as his recounting his drive through the streets of Manhattan in a limousine with the head of the Ford Foundation, bear study.

[14] For a take on the Ford Foundation and its attitude to the Black Power movement see, Karen Ferguson, “Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism,” University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.