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Falling Cement Sparks Building-Trades Protest

April 1, 2017 
By Steven Wishnia

New York, NY - The day after a concrete-form blowout spewed debris 35 stories down onto cars driving on East 59th Street, building-trades workers protested the developer’s use of a nonunion contractor.

“When safety collides with profits, safety is nothing more than a strong talking point,” Michael Hellstrom, organizing director of the Mason Tenders District Council of Greater New York, told the crowd of about 75 on March 30, across Third Avenue from the building under construction at 200 East 59th St. “We are watching an epidemic in the city of New York.” 

The building is a 35-story condominium tower being developed by Macklowe Properties. In March, a two-bedroom apartment on the 19th floor sold for almost $6 million.

On Mar. 29, the city Department of Buildings issued a full stop-work order citing the concrete blowout, which happened when the form concrete was being poured into to build a column burst. The project is also under partial stop-work orders for failing to provide engineering designs to an inspector and because part of a hoist detached on Mar. 22.

The general contractor, Gilbane Building Corp., is “one of the chief proponents of what they call ‘open shop,’” in which union and nonunion subcontractors are mixed on one job site, Hellstrom told LaborPress. That’s unsafe, he says, because the nonunion workers don’t have the same amount of training.

The Buildings Department ordered the damaged hoist to be taken down, he said, because it was “mangled to an unsafe condition.” A worker was filmed riding on top of the elevator cab without being tied off with a safety harness, he added.

Gilbane has a rule that all workers on a site must be tied off if they’re working more than six feet up, a company spokesperson told LaborPress, and both incidents on the 59th Street job site were “taken care of quickly and no one was injured.”

“A safety culture is at the heart of every project we undertake and we are proud of our successful efforts to prevent worksite injuries,” the company said in a statement. “There has never been a loss of life on a Gilbane project in New York.”

The company employs “both union and non-union labor,” it added, and “all of our subcontractors are required to comply with living-wage requirements.”

Those wages can be as low as $15 an hour, says Darrell Jamison, who worked about a year for Tradeoff Construction Services, a subcontractor on the 59th Street building. Jamison, 35, started as a laborer for $15, then got a raise to $20 when he was promoted to foreman. He is now an apprentice with Laborers Local 79.

“I received no safety training,” he told the demonstration. He quit in January while working on a 32-story luxury-apartment building near the South Street Seaport. When he complained about not having a harness, he says, the Tradeoff supervisor “pretty much cursed me out,” threatened to cut his pay by $5 an hour, and hung up on him.

Gilbane was not the general contractor on that building, the company notes.

Anthony Lowe, another former Tradeoff laborer, told LaborPress last June that he’d quit because when he couldn’t find a place to attach his harness while working on the tenth floor of a building in downtown Brooklyn, he was told that if he didn’t keep working, he’d lose his job. He said he made $15 an hour without getting any benefits or training, and the only safety equipment he got was a hardhat.

In New York, City Councilmember Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) said, the city and state require more training “to do your nails or cut your hair” than they do to work on a construction site. He’s cosponsoring Intro 1447, part of a 21-bill package of construction-safety measures now pending in the Council, which would require workers at large construction or demolition sites to have completed or be in an apprenticeship program matching the standards of those approved by the New York State or Department of Labor, typically union apprenticeships. Opposed by the real-estate industry and nonunion contractors, it so far has only 25 of the Council’s 51 members signed on.

Any Councilmember who cares about safety should be signed on to Intro 1447, Kallos told LaborPress. “You want to be able to walk past a construction site and know the people there are trained to do the job safely.”

He told the rally that while training is important, workers also need a strong union to back them up when they complain about unsafe conditions.

The Real Estate Board of New York contends that the bill is mainly designed to promote union labor and would “do little to advance worker safety.” “Open shops,” it said in a January memorandum to the Council, cost up to 20% less than full-union shops, and have increased their share of the market from 15% in the 1970s to close to half today.

“There are hundreds of jobs like this in New York City,” Hellstrom said after the rally. “Why are we suffering on the safety? Because we’ve got developers chasing the profit line.”

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