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The Future of Construction is Here – And American Workers Are Being Cut Out of It

Modular components like this one are being prefabricated overseas at the cost of good union construction jobs here at home.

New York, NY – Industry insiders are calling the tallest modular hotel in the world a “milestone” and a “game-changing symbol” — what they are not talking about is how the 26-story building rising 360 feet over Sixth Avenue, along with other similar developments around town, are shutting out American workers on their own soil. 

“You can’t stop progress — but you can make progress fair,” New York Metal Trades Council President Jimmy Hart tells LaborPress. “I believe that union labor in New York City is committed to a fair economic system — not only don’t we not want to stop progress — we want to be part of the progress.”

But that’s not what developers of an emerging building method using prefabricated modular units constructed on the cheap in places like Russia, Poland, Germany and Denmark want. 

By utilizing stackable modular units delivered to the job site already fully constructed and completely outfitted down to the bedding and toiletries — developers, like the ones behind the  AC Hotel New York NoMad at 842 Sixth Avenue, can put up a building quicker and with two-thirds fewer workers than traditional construction projects. 

“We’re building lots of modular hotels in New York City,” Hart says  “And if they’re manufactured in New York City, employing New Yorkers, that’s one thing. But when they’re getting manufactured overseas in places like Poland, Russia, Germany and Denmark — the American worker does not benefit from that. The only people that benefit are the corporations.”

In the not too distant future, Hart predicts prefabricated modular construction will become the dominant method of construction in New York City, with new hospitals, schools, and cultural institutions being built by non-traditional means. 

“Picture this,” says Hart. “[The AC Hotel New York NoMad] is gonna be fabricated in Poland — I’m told it takes 90 days to fabricate. They’re gonna load it on ships, sail it across the ocean, drop it on a pier in Brooklyn, then truck it over to the site —and all that [U.S.] labor is lost.”

But what about the “Build American” mantra? Yeah, what about it? 

The New York State Department of Labor says the AC Hotel New York NoMad on sixth Avenue is a private development — and, therefore, the agency “does not have a role in this particular project.” Neither Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo has responded to requests for comment.

“New York City’s trade unions are ahead of the curve on this,” Hart says. “They’re working with one of the world’s largest fabricators in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There’s a facility in place waiting to do this work — no need to sub it out to Poland. You could put New Yorkers to work, still reduce the cost and take the benefit of modularization and manufacturing costs, and do it right there in New York City.”

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams sent an email to LaborPress expressing concern about the loss of good paying union jobs associated with modular construction. 

“We understand job loss concerns in modular construction generally, and in this case specifically,” Williams wrote. “Construction jobs, and both the financial and physical security of workers, has been a major priority of the Public Advocate, and our office will continue to examine the issue as the project progresses.”

Slated to debut later this fall, the AC Hotel New York NoMad will feature 168 rooms and be topped off with a rooftop bar — also modularly constructed. With more than 30 properties across North America already utilizing prefabricated components, Marriott International, Inc., the worldwide hotel king behind the $65 million NoMad development, is no stranger to modular construction. 

Marriott also has a history of valuing profit over the welfare of its workforce. In 2018, close to 8,000 Marriott workers citing paltry wages in eight locations across the country, staged a two-month strike. The “One Job Should Be Enough” worker action was the largest of its kind in the industry.

“When I came to the hotel chain [back in 1989], I really, really liked the culture that Marriott had in place,” striking Marriott worker Lisa Correa told LaborPress at the time. “They often spoke about how the employees are really what mattered. The culture was, you take care of your employees, and your employees will, in turn, take care of your guests. Over the last couple of years, the company has really changed its direction. It’s no longer about employees — it’s all about profits and margins.”

Marriott has also not responded to requests for comment on this story.

“The workers are the only ones suffering here,” Hart says. “Corporations are making money, overseas manufacturers are making money, shippers are making money — but Americans aren’t. Even tourists aren’t going to benefit. The lower construction costs are not being passed on to the tourists.”

Hart says he doesn’t expect to recover every job lost to modular construction — but he maintains that a significant number of them can be recovered if modular units are constructed here, instead of overseas. 

“This is really about the fabric of New York City,” he says. “Are we going to create jobs in New York City so that unions and their families can fairly compete for those jobs and raise their families? This is a case where it’s just too convenient to ship these jobs overseas.”

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