The Decrease of Worker Salary in California’s Construction Industry

For decades, the worker salary in California’s construction industry has been trending downwards.  In 1973, the hourly wage of a U.S. construction worker was $31.84, while in 2016, the wage is $25.97 (adjusted for inflation).  Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and show the drop in construction worker pay as mirroring the reduction of worker union participation.  With the reduction of construction workers in unions, construction companies have been able to lower wages without limits besides the minimum wage.

The Effect of Unions

In the 1970s, 40% of construction workers were affiliated with a union, while today, only 10% of construction workers are in a union.  This trend has the potential to be harmful because labor unions tend to be a key platform for protecting the interests of workers.  For example, an average construction worker union would work to protecting the workers’ interests, wages, and hours.  For this reason, it is understandable why the salaries for construction workers are falling in California.

So, if the lack of union membership lowers wages, why don’t construction workers join unions more often?  The reason is that once affiliated with a union, a worker cannot work outside of union-negotiated contracts.  This creates anxiety among workers.  There is a fear of not being able to work if the union doesn’t succeed in negotiating their contract. Martinez, a California construction worker, reaffirms the fear of construction workers by commenting, “They (union workers) earn more, but they don’t have guaranteed work.”  Martinez’s observations underlines a fundamental fear of union construction workers.  They have to rely solely on their union to secure contracts for their potential job, which is usually a lengthy process.  The effect of the drop in union participation and subsequently the reduction in construction worker wages in California has been an influx of Latino immigrants in construction work.

California Wages Union
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California Wages
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The Result, not the Cause

In 1980, only 24.2% of the Los Angeles County construction workers were Latino.  As of 2015, that figure has nearly tripled with 69.6% of the construction workers being Latino.  Rick Judson, Chair of the Board of the National Association of Homebuilders, explains “Immigrant workers fill jobs that are currently going unfilled because the majority of Americans are over-qualified and are unwilling to take these jobs.”  A key reason that many Americans are unwilling to take these construction jobs are because they are generally poor career options because of the low wages.  Many immigrants are willing to overlook this poor wage.  They are more content with having steady work.

Let’s make one the abundantly clear.  Immigrants are not the cause, they are the result.  Immigrants did not “take” these jobs from anyone.  They took the open jobs that Americans left vacant and were willing to do it for a lower wage.  There has been a knee-jerk reaction in the U.S. to blame the worker.  Instead, we should point the critical eye at the those controlling the projects and the wages.  Furthermore, workers that are more concerned with the ability to get work when they need it are less likely to sign up with a union.  For more on union vs. non-union, check out our previous blog on the subject for a more in depth discussion.


The decreasing unionization of construction workers in California has resulted in plummeting salaries.  This fostered an environment that has caused Latino immigrants to fill the need for construction workers in low-paying jobs.  The dilemma of dropping construction worker salaries is not unique only to California.  Many other construction-heavy states have reported similar issues that have caused the construction worker career to lose its viability.

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