NEW YORK, N.Y.—“This looks like the Leaning Tower of New York,” says Joe Scopo, head organizer of District Council 16 of the Cement and Concrete Workers, as about a dozen Laborers Union members and supporters rallied outside a condominium building under construction in Manhattan Nov. 13.
The 13-story structure at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street is irregularly shaped, with wooden beams sticking out unevenly from the upper floors. There are columns on the outside of the second, third, and fourth floors, but none above that, Scopo points out to LaborPress. “There’s columns inside, but they’re not strong enough to hold it up,” he says.
“If this building doesn’t do damage in the next five years, I’d be shocked,” he says through a bullhorn a few minutes later. “You guys are working under unsafe conditions,” he calls out to the workers. “Where’s your harnesses?”
Construction started last summer on the building, which will have retail on the ground floor and 44 condominiums above that. The New York YIMBY development-news Website described its architecture as “Tetris-inspired,” featuring “a deconstructivist façade composed of stacked blocks.” The developer is Gemini Rosemont, based in Los Angeles and partially owned by a Chinese real-estate investment company. It bought the site, formerly a one-story stone bank, in 2016 for $42.4 million.
The Laborers have been protesting against the project’s construction manager, New Line Structures, for several years, charging that it hires nonunion contractors with lax safety standards that often cheat workers out of pay. Scopo and Local 20 organizer Mike Arena say they’ve talked to numerous workers on New Line-run jobs in the last two months who hadn’t gotten paid for four to eight weeks.
New Line did not return a phone call from LaborPress.
The 531 Sixth Ave. site is one of the smaller developments the company is building. Its others include the CIM Group private-equity fund’s 21-story tower at 85 Jay St. in Brooklyn; Gotham Center in Queens Plaza, two 29-story office and residential towers expected to be finished in December; and the 67-story City View Tower at Court Square in Long Island City. It was one of two City View contractors investigated by state Attorney General Letitia James after a temporary construction wall broke and caused a flash flood in the 23rd Street/Court Square subway station last July.
At 531 Sixth Ave., city Department of Buildings records available online show that New Line was fined $625 in May for doing work that “does not conform to approved or amended plans,” a major but non-hazardous violation. That violation was certified as corrected in June. In August, the department received a complaint about a crane operating after hours, but its inspector found no activity. (The job has had after-hours variances most of the time since February, but not for crane use.) One case remains open, an October complaint about the sidewalk being blocked.
Arena says that just before the rally began at Noon, he saw a piece of rebar or wood fall out of the structure. It landed just inside the gate, but if it had been three or four feet further out, it would have crashed into the sidewalk or a pedestrian. He says the building should have a “cocoon,” a covering to protect people on the sidewalk from falling debris—“especially on Sixth Avenue.” But it doesn’t; it has orange netting on the outside of the upper floors’ frames, and black netting sticking out diagonally from the eighth floor.
Arena adds that there’s a “deflection” in the concrete poured two days ago on an upper floor: It’s sagging because there aren’t any “reshores”—poles to hold it up. It usually takes 28 days for concrete to harden properly, he explains, but the poles were already removed.
The Laborers’ beef isn’t with the nonunion workers, Scopo and Arena say. “We’re trying to find ways to get them into our apprenticeship program,” says Scopo.
It’s with the contractors that are undercutting wage and safety standards by cutting corners, stinting on safety gear such as harnesses and paying workers as low as $15 an hour—“when they pay,” Arena interjects.
“We have to make nonunion change their ways,” Scopo says. “It’s got to stop. We have to level the playing field.”
The Laborers are planning to hold a larger protest outside New Line Structures’ Seventh Avenue offices on Nov. 19.