NEW YORK, N.Y.- Instead of taking a knee on the field, 37 construction workers took a seat on the street in front of the National Football League’s Manhattan offices Aug. 22.
The 37, sitting in a straight line, blocked traffic on both sides of Park Avenue at 51st Street just before 5 p.m. to protest The Related Companies’ use of nonunion labor on its Hudson Yards development. They picked that corner because the NFL in January named Related founder and chair Stephen M. Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, to its Social and Racial Justice Committee.
Mike Hellstrom, #CountMeIn campaign director and assistant business manager of the Mason Tenders District Council, told the crowd that Ross has “embarked on a campaign trying to destroy the working class in New York City.”
“They know he’s a racist, sexist union-buster,” Bernard Callegari of Laborers Local 79 declared through a bullhorn.
Police said 37 people, 33 men and four women, were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for impeding vehicular traffic. They wore T-shirts in Dolphins aqua and orange, with “Step Down Steve” on the front and “#CountMeIn” on the back, over the number 50. Most were released with summonses, according to police, but information wasn’t available about all of them.
Several hundred workers packed the plaza in front of the NFL’s offices, carrying printed black-and-white “Step Down Steve Ross” signs and pieces of cardboard with “UNION” hand-painted in day-glo red, green, and orange.
“Today is a dress rehearsal,” Callegari said. “The next time might not be so civil.” But he added that “our fight is not with the NYPD,” saying police had been cooperative with arranging the logistics for the sit-in.
Speakers demanded that Ross resign from the NFL committee, accusing him of tolerating sexual harassment. Darnell Thomas said he had been fired from a job on a Related site for circulating a petition among workers asking for more information about the 401(k) benefits they were promised.
Ross, said Ironworkers Local 46 business manager Terry Moore, asked the metallic-lathers local a few years ago if they wanted to take over all of the Carpenters union’s work, both concrete and interiors. “Would that be solidarity?” he asked. “We said no fuckin’ way.”
He blamed the Carpenters’ international leadership, not its New York locals, for the deal in which it agreed with Related that it would share jobs with nonunion workers at Hudson Yards, but added that he will say “shame on you” to anyone who crosses Local 46’s informational picket line.
“I’m not a ‘killer coffee boy,’” Cement And Concrete Laborers Local 20 member Eric Smokes told the crowd. “I’m a husband and father.” Smokes, who served more than 20 years in prison for a murder he says he did not commit, received the pejorative label in a June New York Post article that described him as getting $44 an hour just to deliver coffee and snacks to the job site. The article was almost completely sourced from Related’s lawsuit against the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.
I’m not a ‘killer coffee boy’ — I’m a husband and father. — Cement And Concrete Laborers Local 20 member Eric Smokes
Ross “tried to put me out there for a public flogging,” Smokes, who is trying to get his conviction overturned, added. In the seven years since he got out of prison, he said, Local 20’s apprenticeship program was “what helped me most.”
Building Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera announced that he had just learned that afternoon Related was filing a second lawsuit against him. “They want to go through me to get to you,” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”
At about 4:45, the protesters participating in the sit-in filed through the steel barricades and into the street, as a police recording repeatedly warned, “if you remain in the roadway, you will be placed under arrest and charged with disorderly conduct.” More than 100 demonstrators jammed the northbound lanes of Park Avenue, chanting “Count Me In,” most filming the sit-in on cameras and cell phones, while marshals warned them to stay on the sidewalk if they didn’t want to be arrested.
One by one, police told the protesters to stand up, and bound their wrists with plastic handcuffs. Bernard Callegari, just after he finished a bottle of water, was the last one arrested. Two police officers marched him backward to a white prison bus.
“This is the beginning of a solidarity revolution in this country,” Hellstrom said to close the rally.