Sunday, February 12, 2012

Labor Pains

Union Protesters Elicit Varied Reactions in Lower Manhattan

Members of the New York City District Council of Carpenters (NYDC) protesting across from the 

Holiday Inn construction site at 99 Washington Street where only non-union workers have been hired.
Lower Manhattan lives with the sights and sounds of construction on a daily basis, but the conditions under which its construction workers labor are largely hidden from outside eyes. Two ongoing protests drew attention this week to a central factor in any construction project: hiring practices.

As construction on the future Holiday Inn at 99 Washington Street ramped up in January, the New York City District Council of Carpenters (NYDC) began regularly picketing Casino Concrete, a subcontractor on Cava Construction's hotel project, for using non-union labor. The NYDC has been demonstrating on-and-off for the last year, because they say the project's developer, Sam Chang, reneged on a project labor agreement that stipulates that only union laborers would be used. Casino Concrete did not respond to requests for comment.

NYDC protesters on Washington Street

The union's criticism of Mr. Chang is supported by a letter, dated September 13, 2011, from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca to the City's Department of Buildings and Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The letter describes Sam Chang as "the quintessential example of a 'bad actor' who should not be allowed to operate in our City." Additionally, the authors noted that "Sam Chang has violated New York's building codes over a thousand times, at more than fifty work sites -- mostly hotel projects. He has put the lives of thousands of workers at risk and accrued more than $1.6 million in fines," most of which the authors assert he has failed to pay.

Ruben Colon, a representative for the union, described the impact of Mr. Chang's hiring practices: "The workers are not the issue, but the problem is with the construction company that hires only non-union members. These workers are mainly from minority populations, many of them Hispanic. Hiring non-union laborers often times leads to discrimination against minority populations, poor working conditions and unsafe labor practices," said Mr. Colon, who that morning had called in an Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) violation against the construction site. The OSHA Complaint involved a worker not being tied off properly using a lanyard, and therefore, being at risk of a fall.

Non-union carpenters also earn significantly less per hour than union carpenters, said Mr. Colon. 
"A union carpenter makes a well-deserved $46.15 per hour in wages and another $38.50 in benefits. The average non-union carpenter makes anywhere between $12 and $25 an hour with partial benefits, if at all," he explained.

Statistics on the NYDC's recent class of apprentices enrolled at the union's Labor Technical College indicate that the organization has been making headway in terms of hiring minorities. Of 1,061 new apprentices inducted into the NYDC in 2010, 623 were persons of color, and 128 were female. In Mr. Colon's Area Standards Department, out of 10 Organizers, 4 are racial minorities, and one is female. Throughout the five boroughs, racial minorities comprise 30 percent of the NYDC's membership.

The United Hispanic Construction Workers (UHCW) protesting outside the offices of 
Hunter Roberts Construction Group

Just a few blocks from the protest at 99 Washington Street, another group of construction workers has been protesting in all weather outside Two World Financial Center for the last two weeks. Their concern is not about union status, but about the right to work itself. The United Hispanic Construction Workers (UHCW), a civil rights coalition of union and non-union members, has been holding a morning vigil outside the offices of Hunter Roberts Construction Group to protest its hiring practices. UHCW, a 20 year-old non-profit coalition of construction workers headquartered in the South Bronx, asserts that Hunter Roberts discriminates against hiring local construction workers from minority populations -- largely Hispanic and African-American men and women from economically depressed communities. The UHCW could offer no quantitative data to support this allegation, instead basing the claim on collective eyewitness accounts and the hiring history of Hunter Roberts.

"Hunter Roberts has projects going on in our communities. We're here because we want a chance to work in the communities where we live," said Daryll Jennings, UHCW's field director at the protest. The civil rights coalition helps its members find employment by shuttling them to job sites throughout the Bronx and Manhattan every weekday. The Coalition's members include laborers, welders, plumbers, masons, carpenters, engineers and electricians. Hunter Roberts did not respond to requests for comment.

Local response to the protest has been mixed, depending on the location. Outside Two World Financial Center, several residents voiced interest in the workers' reason for being there as they silently held up signs. At 99 Washington Street, however, the Merchant Café has been adversely affected by the whistle blowing typically associated with union protests. "We support the right of the union to protest," said Ali Webster, the restaurant's general manager, who has achieved some temporary relief by speaking to a union supervisor onsite, but finds that she has to begin her efforts anew each day. "But we lose seating during lunchtime every day because of the noise. When they all start blowing their whistles, it's unbearable. And that's our main business hour!"

text and photos by Dianne Renzulli



    1. Shout out to Ruben Colon! We need more rank-and-file oriented, media savvy organizers, like him, at the District Council and in the field! Keep up the good work, Brother!

  2. I did my picket duty on 52 and 2 nd and 3rd ves the other day it's amazing that these companies are allowed to exploit these men and I couldn't under stand why our union concrete delivery companies are still delivering to these vultures of human mankind I guess the gumbas have gone two faced on us and are playing both sides of the coin again the site I was at was a mess and you could tell that it was operating non union the men that were working there looked like they were just above the poverty level and you could easily tell who the bosses and owners well they were better dressed I think the whistles are a good way to stir things up you got to draw attention to these s-umbags and if that means getting the neighbors pissed off then so be it I think the picket was run well but I would still like to see the data that says the spending of alot of money on this tactic is making a good return for the members as far as jobs turned the sad part is if we were busy we wouldn't be bothered picketing a job like this or complaining about 1/2 the garbage we are fighting about just remember in these tough times who stood with the membership and who turned their backs on the membership we have a executive delegate and 2 delegate nomination coming up on the 15th at our union meeting at the school go down there and nominate brothers that are not afraid to make waves in the defense of the members rights and wishes be there or don't complain if you can't even take the time when your unemployed to get alittle involved

  3. Its the ole' "Not In My Back Yard" (NIMBY) Syndrome. People won't pay attention until it affects them. "Demonstrations are okay unless they affect me." They complain of whistles yet they ignore the slave labor going on all around them. Obviously the creep who made the negative whistle comment would have carried on "business as usual" while carpenters were being exploited next door had it not been for the very whistling he's complaining about. I say, if it gets the community's attention then keep on whistling. One way or another the public and the contractors must be shown that we are not going to stand around and be silent while this travesty and injustice to carpenters goes on unchecked.

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  5. Today I observed a man try to respectfully discuss the use of airhorns at the protest on Washington street with the guy in charge. This was the first day they were using them and they were excessively loud, especially as compared to the already-loud whistles in use. The man told the protest leader that many people are working feet from where the airhorns are going off, and they are impeding other union workers from doing their work. Instead of politely discussing the issue with the man, the scumbag protest leader just called him an "a-hole" and a "shmuck."

    The man was completely polite up until that point, but the protest THUG couldn't just be civil and have a conversation. Good job. The man said he agreed with their right to protest and even whistle, but the airhorns were well above any reasonable noise level. Instead of being reasonable, or even just calmly explaining his viewpoint, he called the man names like an angry child. I'm glad you think "obnoxious comments are not welcome" on your blog, but cursing out calling a fellow union member who respectfully disagrees and calling him an a-hole, thats okay/. Makes you all look like scumbags.

  6. The "complainant" if truly a union member, should support union efforts, instead he whines he can't do more for his employer because of npise polution? You can't expect to be taken seriously on complaining about noise in a bustling city that never sleeps and where noise decibles are regularly excessive. Let's get real people, we either stand together or fall individually, your choice NYC workers, your choice.


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