March 1, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
New York, Nonunion isn’t kosher.
That was the message about 125 protesters, a mix of building-trades workers and students, sent to Jewish Theological Seminary Feb. 28.
The seminary has hired a Boston-based nonunion contractor, Gilbane Building Company, to build what it’s calling its “21st Century Campus,” which will include a new residence hall, an auditorium and performing-arts space, and a new “state of the art” library.
“Gilbane is one of the more unscrupulous general contractors,” Ironworkers Local 580 business manager Pete Myers told LaborPress, standing in front of the traditional inflatable-rat effigy near the school’s entrance on the corner of Broadway and West 122nd Street. “They exploit the workers. Safety is not important to them.”
“It’s not a union or a nonunion issue,” he added. “It’s the workers’ safety.”
A statement from the seminary defended their choice of contractors. “Gilbane uses an open-shop model, which means union and nonunion subcontractors bid on various aspects of a project and are selected on merit-based factors,” it said. “Recently, the real-estate market in New York City has undergone a shift toward this open-shop approach.” Some of the subcontractors will be union, it added, and they also “must comply with living-wage requirements.”
The open-shop model, Laborers Local 79 organizer Dennis Lee told the crowd, is “where people get paid less.” New York City’s living-wage law requires employers that receive at least $1 million in city-related funds to pay their workers at least $11.70 an hour if they also provide health benefits, or $13.40 if they don’t. Those minimums will go up to $11.90 and $13.65 on April 1.
The crowd, about one-fifth students and the rest mainly from Local 79 and Ironworkers locals 46 and 580, clad in an array of orange, lime-green, and dark hoodies, chanted “Gilbane Sucks” and “How Many More Must Die?”—referring to the more than two dozen workers who have died on nonunion construction jobs in New York City in the last three years.
“A safety culture is at the heart of every project we undertake and we are proud of our successful efforts to prevent worksite injuries,” Gilbane spokesperson Sam Spokony told LaborPress. “There has never been a worksite fatality on a Gilbane project in New York, and industry leaders have consistently rated Gilbane as one of the safest contractors in the nation.”
The Ironworkers’ Myers disputes that. “They’re telling everyone they’re giving proper training. They’re not,” he says. “All the open holes on the job are supposed to be safetied off. They leave open holes.”
Also, he adds, people on the company’s job work directly above and below each other. “If I’m welding and you’re underneath me, it’s not a very safe place to be,” he explains. And because it’s a nonunion job, workers who complain about unsafe conditions “have nowhere to go to air their grievances” and can be reprimanded or terminated.
However, Gilbane says it will not be hiring US Crane & Rigging, a subcontractor it has used in the past, for this project. The Ironworkers say US Crane is notorious for wage theft and poor safety. “It was 50-50 when you went to pick up your check on Friday if you were going to get all your hours,” says Edgar Melendez, who quit his job at US Crane last summer, and says training was so minimal some workers didn’t know how to tie a harness.
“Exploitation of workers is not a Jewish value,” said Noam Green, a first-year student at JTS and Barnard College across the street. “I love my school, but I don’t want to be complicit.” She doesn’t want to use the new library “knowing it was built on the blood of workers.”
The woman standing next to her carried a sign with the Hebrew words “lo tignov.” “Don’t steal.”