NEW YORK, N.Y.—“We really need to get rid of nonunion construction in New York City,” Joe Scopo, head organizer of District Council 16 of the Cement and Concrete Workers, says a few minutes before a lunch-hour protest outside the CIM Group’s offices in midtown Manhattan Aug. 27. “They’re exploiting workers in every way they can. Wage theft. Racism. A lot of the workers we’re talking to aren’t getting paid for five or six weeks at a time.”
“Nonunion construction companies are coming over here and taking our work,” Rainaldo Ortiz, a Laborers Local 6A member from the Bronx who was one of the about 35 workers and supporters at the rally, told LaborPress. They’re paying workers minimum wage, he added, while “I’m trying to feed my family.”
CIM, a Los Angeles-based private-equity firm, is one of the developers hiring nonunion contractors to do large-scale residential construction in the city. Building-trades unions have been protesting outside 85 Jay St., a 732-apartment mix of luxury condos and rentals CIM is developing in the Dumbo section of downtown Brooklyn, for well over a year, saying that the contractors it hires have a record of wage theft and fatal accidents. The firm is also one of the developers, along with the loudmouthedly anti-union JDS Development Group and nonunion L+M Development Partners, on the behemoth Two Bridges project planned for the Chinatown waterfront. A State Supreme Court judge blocked it on July 31, ruling that the city had approved it without going through the proper land-use review procedures.
“They’re underbidding everything,” Scopo told the rally. Developers estimate that they save about 20-25% by using nonunion labor, according to The Real Deal trade journal. Those savings, Scopo told LaborPress, come from lower wages, cutting back on safety, not paying overtime, or sometimes not paying workers at all, especially if they’re undocumented immigrants.
“They’re making them pay for their own harnesses,” he says. The harnesses used to prevent serious falls cost around $350, a lot of money for someone making $15-20 an hour. One nonunion worker he talked to, he says, told him that a supervisor had instructed him to “make it look like you have a harness on.”
“If an accident happens on a union job, it’s an accident,” Scopo told the rally. “If an accident happens on a nonunion job, it’s because they cut back on safety.”
He suspects, based on his 23 years of experience working with concrete, that the Aug. 27 collapse of a Bronx building under construction happened either because the concrete wasn’t properly inspected or because too much weight was put on it. The collapse killed Segundo Huerta, a 48-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant with five children, and severely injured his 21-year-old nephew.
Nonunion developers aren’t using on what they save on labor costs to produce more affordable housing, says District Council 16 organizer Mike Arena. “They’re paying these guys $15 an hour and charging the same rent,” he told LaborPress. “It’s corporate greed.
Despite a package of safety laws enacted by the City Council in 2017, construction deaths and injuries in the city remain high, with more than 90% of the deaths occurring on nonunion jobs, according to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Scopo told the rally that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city labor and buildings departments aren’t doing enough, that “the unions are the only ones who care.”
A coalition of building-trades unions is planning a larger protest for the afternoon of Sept. 17. The coalition includes District Council 16 and its three affiliates, Laborers Locals 6A, 18A, and 20; Laborers Locals 79 and 1010; International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 1; and Bricklayers and Allied Crafts Local 7.
“There’s no timeline. It’s a war,” says Scopo. “We’re going to fight until somebody sits down with us and works out a deal.”