Building Trades

The Fight to Organize 99 Tenth Avenue

Kramer and Barber

above: Local 94 Rep John Kramer and 99 Tenth Avenue Engineer Rashik Barber

by Local 94, IUOE

Local 94 brings a lot to the table: our members have substantial job security, good health and pension benefits, and are backed up by the best training programs in the City. But employers don’t always see it that way.

Take the case of 99 Tenth Avenue, a property on the corner of 17th Street and Tenth in Manhattan, almost touching the new High Line elevated park in the neighborhood of Chelsea. The building is home to government agencies, including the General Services Administration. At 99 Tenth, three men employed as stationary engineers and helpers approached Local 94 early in 2008 with the goal of joining the union. The building’s management, CB Richard Ellis, strongly objected.

CB Richard Ellis, or CBRE, is a Fortune 500 Real Estate firm with 30,000 employees worldwide. It brought its considerable legal and financial resources to block the unionization of 99 Tenth.

Conducting a union organizing drive is harder in the USA than in most other industrial democracies. Here, a majority of members in a shop who wish to join a union must indicate their preference and then petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election. The election is by secret ballot and is supposed to be free of employer interference, but that’s rarely the case. Employers fight most unionization drives with their traditional weapons of firings and intimidation, as well as anti-union propaganda.

At 99 Tenth, early in 2008, the three staff members who maintain the building’s HVAC systems signed union cards, and Local 94 Business Rep John Kramer presented the cards to management. CBRE objected, saying that Rashik Barber, the senior man, was in fact a supervisor and should be considered management, not staff. Kramer filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against CBRE in May of 2008, and our attorneys argued the case against CBRE’s counsel before the NLRB.

We won the case on July 15, and the NLRB ordered an election the following month, on August 1. That election brought Local 94 onto the property and should have ended the struggle. It did not. CBRE wrote up the men on bogus disciplinary charges, and they moved to reduce the pay of the senior man by $1 an hour. Kramer filed additional unfair labor practices seeking reversal of the actions.
In January of 2009, after dragging out negotiations, 99 Tenth finally told Local 94 that they would be represented by the Realty Advisory Board in negotiations. But the talks moved along slowly through the winter and early spring of this year, and CBRE laid off one of the helpers, saying he was not needed.

A settlement came in March, and the men were given their union pay rates as of April 1, 2009. Rashik Barber had his $1 per hour pay cut restored back to the same date. Local 94 found another job for the laid-off helper and obtained a lump sum payment for him as a settlement for the unjustified firing.
The fight to unionize 99 Tenth took a year and a half, and consumed considerable legal and financial resources on both sides. Says John Kramer: “They tortured us. They played the game. But they came around. They know they can’t do this any longer.”

Struggles to unionize shops will be much easier if Congress passes the Employee Free Choice Act, which is currently being debated on capitol hill and is the subject of fierce anti-union campaigns on behalf of many of America’s largest companies. They consider their legal expenses to ward off unions just part of the cost of doing business. In the process, they trample on the rights of workers to unionize and stop thousands from doing so.
EFCA would have allowed Local 94 to unionize 99 Tenth at the first step – right after a majority of employees signed union cards.
As it was, the fight took a lot of time and money and subjected the men, says Kramer, to needless anxiety, as they had to withstand intimidation and anti-union speeches from their bosses. “They were told that they’d be better off without a union, but they did not give in,” he says.

Union Busting Surge

Employers have been emboldened by the global economic and political climate to act more aggressively and more punitively against workers.

That’s the conclusion of “No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing,” a May study by Cornell University Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner.

The study finds that private sector employer opposition to workers’ efforts to form unions has intensified and become more punitive than in the past.

Employers are more than twice as likely to use 10 or more tactics — including threats of and actual firings, threats of and actual plant closings, harassment, disciplinary actions, surveillance, and alteration of benefits and working conditions — in their campaigns to thwart workers’ organizing efforts. At the same time, employers are less likely to offer “carrots,” such as unscheduled raises, positive personnel changes, bribes, special favors, social events, promises of improvement and employee involvement programs.

“It’s almost as if employers today have the attitude — we don’t care, we don’t have to care about the law, about public opinion,” Bronfenbrenner says. “We don’t do the carrots. We just do the stick.”

The report provides a comprehensive independent analysis of employer behavior in union representation elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), from 1999 to 2003. Bronfenbrenner finds:

  • 63 percent interrogate workers in one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union;
  • 54 percent threaten workers in such meetings;
  • 57 percent threaten to close the worksite;
  • 47 percent threaten to cut wages and benefits; and
  • 34 percent fire workers.
Even when workers succeed at forming a union, 52 percent are still without a contract a year after they win the election, and 37 percent remain without a contract two years after the election.

Scoping Out the Stimulus Dollars

By J. Mijin Cha
Director of Campaign Research, Urban Agenda

  The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has been called an historic down-payment on a clean energy economy and an important engine for the creation of green collar jobs.  But what will recovery funds pay for in New York City and what kinds of green jobs will be created?
  The Recovery Act creates several different channels for stimulating green economic development projects.  The spending portion of the Act commits dollars directly to a variety of Federal and State programs, allocates additional funds directly to municipalities and local governments based on existing formulas, and sets aside money to be disbursed by request and awarded via competitive grants.  The majority of funds will come down through existing channels.
  Because of the variety of channels, and because many program guidance notices and requests for proposals are still being released, the amount of money that New York City will ultimately receive from the stimulus is an open question.  However, the Mayor’s Office of Operations has estimated that New York City will receive $4-4.5 billion to cover existing expenses (Medicaid, unemployment insurance etc.) and $500 million in direct capital funding over the next two years.

Buildings Department Releases Findings from from Investigation into the Fatal Crane Collapse on East 51st Street

By Neal Tepel

Investigative Report Finds Improper Rigging Operations as Cause of Collapse

Following an extensive investigation by the New York City Buildings Department, it was concluded that improper rigging operations caused an 11,000-pound steel collar to fall March 15, 2008 while it was being connected to the building under construction. When the collar fell, it struck and severely damaged the crane’s lower connections to the building, which resulted in the collapse of the entire tower crane structure. The collapse killed six construction workers and one civilian, demolished a four-story brownstone on East 50th Street, and damaged more than a dozen buildings in the East Side neighborhood.

Based on this comprehensive review, the investigation concluded the collapse was caused by a number of critical errors, including: Four synthetic slings ere used instead of the required eight chain blocks specified by the anufacturer to support the 11,279-pound steel collar; One of the slings used to support the collar had prior physical damage; Slings were not attached at he collar points specified by the manufacturer; Slings were attached to the mast in a way that compromised their capacity; and Padding for the slings at the mast’s sharp edges was not provided.

DOB Inspectors and Engineers worked with Department of Investigation (DOI) and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office on the investigation into the collapse, and in January, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau announced the indictment of the tower crane rigger and his company on multiple charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, assault, and reckless endangerment. DOB continues to work with the District Attorney and DOI to prosecute the case.

A copy of the 298-page report, titled “51st Street Crane Investigation Report,” is available at this link.

Mayor Bloomberg calls for federal crackdown on bogus OSHA classes

Monday, February 2nd 2009, 3:28 AM

Mayor Bloomberg called on the feds to crack down on bogus construction safety programs Sunday after a Daily News sting exposed trainers teaching crucial 10-hour courses in two hours.

An undercover reporter attended what was supposed to be a 10-hour federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's training course above a Bronx bar, paying $125. The course lasted 2 hours and 17 minutes, during which some classmates sipped beers on breaks.

"It's very worrisome. We depend on OSHA to train the workers here so that you're safe when you walk by a construction site, so that the people who work on that site are safe," Bloomberg said. "I don't know if these stories are accurate, but if they are, OSHA should do something about it right away."

OSHA officials said they will look into the paper's findings.

"We're going to monitor this and see what's going on," said Earl Hicks of OSHA's Washington office.

Hicks confirmed OSHA has opened 10 investigations nationally of this growing problem, including two in New York that have already resulted in license suspensions.

Additional information