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Bricklayers’ Expo Shows Skills, Pushes Prevailing Wage

June 14, 2017 
By Steven Wishnia

Albany, N.Y.—On June 13, the New York Regional Conference of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers invited reporters and elected officials to try some of the tasks masonry workers do on the job, like laying bricks and setting tile. More daring participants, the union said, could “strap into a safety harness and stand on a two-point suspended scaffold rig about three feet wide.”

“The rig never leaves the floor,” it noted, “but it conveys the sensation of hanging off the side of a building hundreds of feet off the ground grinding mortar joints.”

The event, held in the state Legislative Office Building’s “well” public area, had two main points. First, to show the skill and versatility of masonry workers. “Masonry crafts are as old as civilization itself, and stem from a rare combination of artistic inspiration, precision, and muscle,” the union said. Second, to urge the Legislature to try to stem the deterioration of wages and safety standards in the construction industry, by passing a bill that would close loopholes in the state law that requires workers on publicly funded projects to receive “prevailing wages and benefits.”

“The construction industry is in a race to the bottom of wages and working conditions,” Bricklayers Local 1 President Jeremiah Sullivan told LaborPress in an email. “If you don't believe it, look at construction fatalities statewide.”  According to a New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health report released in January, 246 building-trades workers died on the job between 2011 to 2015, more than three-fourths of them nonunion.

“That's unacceptable!” Sullivan added. “Construction workers—whether they are union or not—shouldn't have to face an assumption that, because the industry has become so riddled with injuries and fatalities, they may not make it through the day in one piece.”

The bill the union is backing—A.5498, sponsored by Assemblymember Harry Bronson (D-Rochester), and S.2975, by state Sen. Terrence Murphy (R-Putnam), would extend prevailing-wage requirements to all government-subsidized construction in the state. It’s intended to include any project that gets any kind of public subsidy, explains Bricklayers legislative director William Nagel. It would expand the definition of “paid for out of public funds” to include private projects built specifically for public entities, public property sold or rented at a discount, and those that receive tax credits. It would also give the state labor commissioner the power to issue a stop-work order for alleged violations.

It would also extend prevailing-wage coverage to projects subsidized or financed by local industrial development agencies; those built under the aegis of nonprofit “park trusts,” such as development in Brooklyn Bridge Park; housing that receives state or city tax abatements, such as the recently revived and expanded 421-a property-tax exemption; and charter schools, which are privately run but receive public funds. Charter schools, Nagel told LaborPress, are important for the Bricklayers—because most schoolhouses are made of brick.

“We’re competing mostly with people being paid off the books in cash,” Nagel says. Nonunion wages, he added, average roughly one-third of what union bricklayers get in wages and benefits.

“Our government subsidizes projects with non-union contractors and developers that barely pay subsistence wages,” Bricklayers Area Conference President Jack Argila said. “This is destroying our industry.  We offer people decent careers with solid, middle-class wages and benefits and, most importantly, the training necessary to master the craft and work safely.”

The elected and administrative officials who stopped by the union’s event included state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Commissioner of Labor Roberta Riordan. “We want them to see firsthand the hard work that goes into laying each brick or setting each tile. You can't just pull people off the street and hand them a trowel,” Argila said. “Also, we want electeds to meet some of our apprentices—men and women learning our crafts—and look them in the eye.”

More than 70 legislators have signed on as cosponsors, Nagel says, more than any previous version of the bill has gotten. But with a week left in the legislative session, the bill has not made it to the floor in either house. In the Assembly, the Labor Committee referred it to the Codes Committee early last month. In the Senate, the Labor Committee referred it to the Finance Committee.

“We know this is an uphill battle against entrenched interests and cherished pork-barrel programs, but we've got to speak for the workers in this industry,” Nagel says.  “We have to help craft public policy that will continue New York State's long tradition of support for the basic human dignity of construction workers, and that starts with prevailing wages and benefits.”

He’s still “hoping that something will jell” this year, and says both legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo “know that this is an important issue for us.”

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