June 20, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – An 11-foot effigy of the Grim Reaper turned the corner onto Fifth Avenue late in the afternoon June 16, followed by a procession bearing mock coffins and tombstones.
“How many more must die?” the crowd of 500-odd construction workers chanted. The tombstones bore epitaphs like “Non-Union Worker. 620 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. Crushed by Falling I-Beam.”
“The result of exploitation was their deaths,” Gary LaBarbera, president of the New York City Building and Construction Trades Council, told the crowd. “We are not going to allow developers to put lining their pockets before our lives. Instead of respecting us and the quality of our work, they’re trying to chip away.”
The rally, outside the offices of Macklowe Properties on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, was the second protest of the day against the growing use of nonunion contractors, with their lower wages and safety standards, by developers of large buildings in the city. Macklowe was targeted for hiring the Boston-based contractor Gilbane to convert One Wall Street, a 50-story former bank headquarters, to luxury housing and retail. According to Ironworkers Local 46, Gilbane’s “irresponsible” nonunion subcontractors include the Auringer family’s companies, which have a long history of wage theft and serious accidents and have been hired on other Macklowe buildings. Another is Tradeoff Construction Services, where workers have complained that they’re put on standby if they speak out about safety problems.
“The developer’s responsible. They know who they’re hiring,” LaBarbera told LaborPress before the rally. Macklowe is hiring contractors that pay low wages even though “they’re a big-time developer,” said Laborers Local 79 member Michette Dennis, one of the few women in the crowd.
The earlier rally took place outside 111 West 57th St., an ultra-skinny 82-story luxury condominium tower where apartments are expected to sell for $14 million to $65 million. It featured worker Edgar Melendez of the Bronx walking off his $15-an-hour job with subcontractor U.S. Crane & Rigging, an Auringer company, and joining the Ironworkers. This one featured Anthony Lowe, a 29-year-old laborer from Brooklyn who two months ago quit a job with Tradeoff Construction Services.
“I had to tie off, but there was no way to tie off,” Lowe, now a member of Local 79, told the crowd. He was working on the tenth floor of a building in downtown Brooklyn, and couldn’t find a place to connect his harness. He was told that if he didn’t keep working, he’d lose his job.
“Fuck them!” shouted a man waving a yellowish-green “Gilbane Sucks. Don’t Try Union-Busting in NYC!” T-shirt.
“That’s what I said,” Lowe answered.
“I couldn’t latch onto any poles or anything,” he told LaborPress. Tradeoff didn’t give workers any safety equipment other than a hardhat, not even dust masks or gloves, he said, and he made $15 an hour without getting any benefits or training.
“We have a construction safety problem in the City of New York,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said. Union jobs are safer, she added, because workers feel empowered enough to speak up when something’s wrong.
Macklowe’s use of Gilbane at One Wall Street is the latest example of developers using nonunion contractors for large-scale construction in Manhattan, the most solidly union part of the industry. There’s “too much” nonunion work going on, said Steve, an 18-year member of Ironworkers Local 580 who did not want to give his last name. “It’s always been around, but it’s escalated.” Nonunion contractors “definitely don’t get the quality of work that we give,” but they save money by paying lower wages and having lower safety standards.
Reinaldo Torres, an organizer with Sheet Metal Workers Local 28, says he’s seen an increase in nonunion work as the “pool of available manpower has broadened.” Typically, he said, they have one or two skilled workers run the job.
“New York is a union town, but we’re under attack,” Torres told the rally, urging them to go into the streets “to defend the union standards our fathers and grandfathers fought and went to jail for.” The city is the largest construction market in the world, he said, and “if New York goes down, we all go down.”
LaBarbera seconded the call for street heat. “In the month of December, we had 20,000 people at City Hall,” he said. Next time, “I want 40,000 at City Hall.”