by Bob Fitch
It happens after virtually every big protest: organizers arguing with police over the size of the crowd. Typically, the cops' estimate is half the size of the march leaders.' The same dispute broke out June 30th, after labor's largest and most violent demonstration in the city since the hungry 'thirties. (38 arrested, dozens of injured, including 20 cops --- more than 200 construction jobs were shut down.)
This time, though, the cops and the organizers changed places. The police estimated 40,000 demonstrators. Officials of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York who called the rally to protest the award of an $30 million MTA contract to non-union contractor, Roy Kay, insisted only 20,000 of their members had showed up.
Raining on the size of their own parade is just one example of how frantically New York construction union officials, battered by criminal indictments, and desperately on the
defensive against a powerful nonunion contractors movement, have backed away from their own demonstration. It's raw youth and muscular militancy seemed to frighten them even more than Police Commissioner Howard Safir's terrified crowd control specialists.
As thousands of young street tough workers pushed relentlessly against their barricades, the cops defending the non-union MTA "Command Center" on Ninth Avenue panicked, pointed their buttons in the wrong direction, and maced themselves.
"The cops and the union leaders both lost control. We scared the shit out of them," exulted Greg Butler a thirty year old carpenter from Harlem who works at the Javits Center.
"We were just supposed to stand there on Madison avenue and listen to a bunch of speeches from the leaders and the contractors. It was just a spontaneous thing When we blocked the (Liberty) bus, we were able to take over Madison Avenue. Then, after the speeches, people said, 'Let's go back to Ninth Avenue."'
Official march leader Anthony Mancusi of LIUNA's Local 79 tried to stop workers at the Ninth Avenue construction site from storming protective police lines. He was booed, cursed and shouted down. "Okay, do what you have to do," Mancusi reportedly said, as the crowd of angry tradesmen surged past him.
Within hours of the arrests, BCTC officials canceled the demonstration they'd called for the next Tuesday. Signs went up in local headquarters all across the city warning workers not to demonstrate. No more demonstrations, they promised the Mayor.
The leaders publicly denounced their own arrested members, likening them to rowdy fans at Yankee stadium. They wound up giving credibility to a front page Daily News campaign to build sympathy for a police horse allegedly punched by a union demonstrator. Meanwhile they offered no public expression of concern as a steamfitter lay in the hospital after being trampled by mounted police.
Actually, on Tuesday, there were two demonstrations in two different locations by two different generations of trade unionists with very different aims. Both are trying to save their jobs. It's unlikely both can succeed.
The Madison Avenue demo in front of MTA headquarters that broke up inconclusively at 9:15 A.M. Tuesday was planned by an older generation of leaders, who've settled into office without ever figuring out how to organize anyone. Or learn how to run a demonstration. No one thought to bring leaflets explaining what the demo was about.
The speakers were completely inaudible.
That's because BCTC honchos couldn't get an adequate sound permit. They also failed to get a march permit despite their public endorsement last year of Giuliani for Mayor. Yet, only two weeks beforehand, Dennis Rivera who hadn't publicly backed the Mayor, got a permit to march 20,000 hospital workers down Broadway at rush hour. The union officials' complete lack of clout and political savvy- unimaginable in the days of Harry Van Arsdale-set up the violent confrontation they so desperately wanted to avoid.
Many New York City construction local union officials are products of the new school: trusteeships. They owe their jobs not to the votes of the members but to the officers of the international, who don't even live here.
The largest and most powerful unions-the 20,000 member District Council of Carpenters, the 4,000 member Teamsters Local 282 (Sammy "the Bull" Gravano's old local that delivers vital concrete and construction supplies), and the 8,500 member Mason Tenders District Council (LIUNA)-are all being run by trustees from the international union tasked with rooting out entrenched corruption and mob rule.
Typically, indicted union officials have gone down for taking bribes from union contractors to allow the use of non-union labor. These are not the guys you'd choose yourself to lead the fight against non-union.
Indeed, the BCTC has shown little ability to slow the spread of non-union contracting. A couple of years ago, the Laborers got an agreement with asbestos removal contractors, creating a new 1,100 member local. Still, although the Mason Tenders District Council disputes the figures, according to Labor Department reports signed by President Arthur Coia, the District Council is down to 7,500 members, down from 10,000 six years ago.
Outside New York and a few cities like Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, non-union contractng is the norm. After World War II, America's construction unions had an 88% share of the market after W.W.II. Now it's down to a marginal 18%.
Here in the city, non-union work dominates the renovation of once interiors. But the problem got more visible in the mid-nineties, when the Mayor's $250 million Lower Manhattan Project to convert downtown office buildings to residential condo's wound up being captured by non-union crews. "When building owners got a taste of non-union contracting in the 'nineties," explains Brian Lockett, assistant manager of the BNA's Construction Labor Report, "they decided they liked it. It's not just the lower pay. It's work rules. It's control of the job site."
Union contractors are also reeling from Mayor Guiliani's decision to set up a Construction Task Force to regulate the industry, forcing them to register with the city and submit to the indignity of fingerprinting. Even executives at Tishman are being treated like cabdrivers. No wonder, non-union contractors feel confident enough in this "union town" to brazenly bid on highly visible, political construction projects like MTA. The top three bidders on the Ninth Avenue MTA facility were all non-union contractors.
But Brian McLaughlin, Central Labor Council chief, State Assemblyman from Queens and former long time aide to IBEW Local 3 President Harry Van Arsdale, insists that the issue isn't the loss of union work to non-union contractors. "We're not trying to keep non-union contractors from bidding on public construction projects," he explained recently, "What we're objecting to is non-union contractors like Roy Kay that try to compete unfairly."
McLaughlin, who's rumored to be running for Mayor in 2001, has mastered public policy discourse. He speaks with the precision of someone steeped in the arcane of a highly complex industry. But he doesn't speak for the membership.
The issue isn't union vs. non-union? "Yoon-yun! Yoon-Yun! Yoon-Yun! " With fists in the air, that's what tens of thousands of members kept shouting last Tuesday. They're not seeking a level playing field so they can compete fairly with non-union. They want to sweep non-union operators from the field.
I spoke with a 19 year old apprentice plumber in Local 1. He stood in the front line of demonstrators who got maced at 9th Avenue. For him the issue is not whether Roy Kay competes fairly or not. "The leadership is wrong," he says flatly, "The point is he's not union."
Along with several dozen other apprentice plumbers, he managed to evade police blockades to reach the 54th and 9th Avenue MTA Command Center. When they arrived, there were just a few isolated groups. "The cops made everybody go on the side walk," he recalls, "We got split up We started getting nervous. Then all of a sudden about 200 brothers and sisters came to join us. So we had our heart back. We went 'let's go' and took on the police line. We're shouting 'Shame on you,' and 'Give the cops a raise.' You know we have cousins on the force.
"But some members are starting to get wild, and Mr.Mancusi from Local 79 tells us to calm down. 'If you use force on them, they'll use force on you,' he says. Everybody yells 'Fuck you.' The cops were really scared. You could see it in their faces. They started to go for the giant cans of mace. They sprayed it over everybody. Even on themselves. "
"That day I really felt union. All the guys are feeling that way," said the young plumber. "Well, not everybody," he concedes. "Some guys are like zombies. They just go with the flow. My cousin's in the union. I made a banner for the demonstration. I tell him 'Hold it.' He says, 'I can't. I don't want to look stupid.' I say, 'You have to, it's for the union.'
You know, this is a pretty cool movement."
Where's this movement going? Greg Butler, the Javits Center carpenter from Harlem, citing the classic history of the union, Empire in Wood, observes that it produced the first real strike in the carpenters union since 1915. "We shut down all the jobs. This was the equivalent of a construction general strike. It was completely unprecedented.
"Usually," Butler points out, "official labor marches are rigidly controlled. You check in with a B.A, get your little rewards. This was different. We seized control."
The rank-and file controlled the streets for a day. But the leaders retain control of the union machinery. They're using it to promote a business union strategy against non-union contracting that hasn't worked anywhere else. "It's all about market share," as one Local 79 official told Tom Robbins of the Daily News.
But in a head on head battle for market share, union workers will lose. They'll lose even if they win. Non-union contractors are cheaper And in the battle to get their costs down, union contractors will wind up adopting non-union labor standards. Not vice versa.
Last Tuesday's demonstration exposed two movements, a business unionist vanguard that's resigned to fighting nonunion contractors on non-union terms-and a younger contingent, many of whom are as angry at their unions as they are at the contractors.
What will happen to them is hard to say. If the June 29th one day general strike is to be more than a momentary outburst of anger against the old order, the Italian American carpenter from Queens and the African American carpenter from Harlem will have to connect across a whole series of barriers -racial, jurisdictional, political-that have separated their predecessors since the days of PJ. McGuire. If they succeed, it could be a "pretty cool movement."
by Frank McMurray
West Coast correspondent
Rat Monday, March 7, 1988, is a date burned into the memory of the scab Associated Building Contractors (ABC). It was the opening day of their annual convention in San Francisco. They were expecting to thumb their noses at a few pickets assembled by the ineffectual leaders of the local building trades union, and toast the death of unionism in a city famous for its past militancy.
Instead they were greeted by a general strike of construction workers that shut down every major site in the city, and a crowd of 10,000 shouting, chanting workers who showered them with raw eggs as they arrived at the downtown Moscone Convention Center. The police, who had been told by the San Francisco Building Trades Council to expect "several hundred pickets," were unwilling to tackle this crowd. After several hours they managed to open the street in front of Moscone Center and provide a corridor of access for the rat contractors, but the cops were clearly afraid to go into the crowd and arrest the workers throwing eggs-only three arrests were made that day. The defeated ABC rats packed up their displays, closed the convention early and called their lawyers.
How had this happened? Had the leaders of the local building trades unions suddenly developed backbones?
It surely did not appear that way--almost every union leader had abandoned the demonstration early on Rat Monday. One exception was Stan Smith, head of the Building Trades Council, who stayed on the police side of the barricade with a bull horn, begging the workers to obey the cops. Perhaps it was a ruse by the leadership, a ploy to divert attention from them after they had secretly organized this strike and near riot, unleashing the amazing power of the rank and file?
The ABC quickly filed a lawsuit against those who they felt were responsible for destroying their annual meeting, naming the SF Building Trades Council. Their suit also named "The Rat Monday Strike Committee," an unknown group whose names had appeared on a yellow leaflet with a red stop sign. The leaflet called on all construction workers to strike on March 7th and assemble at Moscone Center to "greet the rats." The committee gave the day its name.
The Building Trades Council denied responsibility for the Rat Monday events, but ending up paying damages to the scab association. The ABC was never able to determine who the members of the Rat Monday Strike Committee were, and therefore was unable to bring them to court.
Although no one has ever stepped forward as a member of that Committee, Hard Hat News interviewed one worker who admits he was-"close to the events" and agreed to speak. Joe (as we'll call him) explained how the Committee put out leaflets: "They would go into the construction sites at 2 am and paste those yellow flyers all over the place. The next morning when the crews showed up the leaflets were just there-calling for a strike on Rat Monday. Nobody knew who was doing it, but we thought it was the right idea. When I asked my Business Agent he waffled -he wasn't for it and he wasn't against it.
"The Rat Monday Committee were rank and file members of several construction unions. They knew the Building Trades was planning their usual gutless picket line-a few fools walking around chanting. No strike, no eggs, no mass demonstration. The unions were afraid to call out the rank and file because they would lose control-once the genie is out of the bottle, how you gonna put it back?"
Although Rat Monday was the largest labor demonstration since the General Strike of 1934 and a front page story in the local papers, it was almost totally blacked out by the national media, who seem to have a fear that reporting such events will encourage other workers to copy them. Perhaps they are right.
The scab contractors and their Metropolitan Transit Authority clients have now seen some of the fury of New York's rank and file trades. Official statements by our leaders may talk about unfair bidding on contracts, but everybody knows the real issue is that nonunion outfits have been grabbing our work for too long.
In this issue, Bob Fitch has identified two demonstrations, one official, the other unofficial. It just happens that the unofficial march to the Ninth Avenue scab site was the one that got everyone's attention. This is a lesson for the future: we cannot rely on our leaders to stop the open shop in New York for us. Many of the demonstrators we spoke to on page 10 have already said as much.
This "fair competition" type of unionism is a lousy deal for the membership. It leads to workers competing with each other, securing the lowest possible expense for the contractor. As unionized trades it is our job to stop scab contractors from operating in New York City.
Having said this, it needs to be pointed out that union leaders have to be very cautious about what they say publicly and even in union meetings. An irate contractor can bring the full force of the legal system down on officials personally for inciting certain actions against a scab operation.
Even worse, our locals and district councils can be legally robbed of their funds when we try to defend our interests with an official blessing. All this points to an urgent need to reform the labor laws, which have too long favored the interests of the employer.
Rank and file actions are often the only way to go. On page 8 of this issue Frank MacMurray looks back ten years when 10,000 trades people stopped work to bust up the scab Associated Building Contractors (ABC) meeting in San Francisco. It is important to note that ABC tried to sue the San Francisco Building Trades for wrecking their annual meeting, but failed because they could not identify any of the organizers. Sometimes it is better not to wait to be told "Do what you have to do," it is better to just do it!
Although the Building Trades Council pointed to Roy Kay's safety violations, our article on page 4 shows that New York generally has a disgraceful safety record compared with all other major cities, a point highlighted by the recent collapse of a construction hoist in Times Square.
When Hard Hat News called OSHA for construction accident and death rates for New York, they could supply no figures and said that ours was a very unusual request! However, the most recent figures we have shows New York with the highest accidental death rate in construction of the 20 largest US cities. This is a matter HHN will follow in subsequent issues.
And finally, let's see a big turnout for the trades on September 12 - Happy Labor Day!
by Bob Fitch
A very well run site with very few violations." So proclaimed City Buildings Commissioner Gaston Silva on July 22d after a 20 story chunk of elevator scaffolding snapped off developer Douglas Durst's $500 million Conde Nast building killing one, injuring a dozen and closing down Times Square for seven days.
True, just two weeks before, carpenter Charles Robbins, had been crushed to death in the Conde Nast elevator shaft. And Robbins' death had marked the third accident on the project since January. Still, OSHA investigators visited the site in June and gave it a clean bill of health. Wasn't the problem created by Robbins, suggested an anonymous investigator to the New York Times, who pronounced himself "baffled" that the 44 year old carpenter would be in the elevator shaft while it was in use?
Robbins fate was sad, but unpreventable, authorities explain, like laborer Luis Gomez, who was buried alive at a Con Edison construction site in Tribeca on July 11th. Gomez, they say, simply had no business working in a hole while co-workers were filling it up with concrete. OSHA found no violations at the Con Ed project either.
If all the projects are so well-run how come construction death rates are spiraling? New York City had 23 fatalities in 1996 for 91,000 workers. That's roughly double the U.S. construction death rate average of 13.9 per hundred thousand. But the national figures themselves are nothing for construction industry executives to be proud of. No urban-based industry has a higher death rate than construction. Construction deaths occur at four times higher than the rate in manufacturing.
Iron workers are spectacularly at risk. In the trades, their death rates are easily the highest-double the next most dangerous construction trade -laborers. And ten times more dangerous than plumbers -- who themselves are twice as likely to die on the job as factory workers.
The wide variance of death rates within the trades undermines the companies' argument that construction deaths result simply from the negligence or drunkenness of individual workers. "In any thousand men there are bound to be some with a drinking problem, and those are often the ones who miss their step on a ladder," explains Karl Sabbagh, who wrote the HRH friendly, Skyscraper, about the construction of Worldwide Plaza. "Although the ironworkers have the most visibly dangerous jobs," explains Sabbagh, whose book was made into a PBS TV documentary," they don't suffer the most accidents, perhaps for the obvious reason that anyone doing something so clearly hazardous will take a great deal more care than when walking on firm ground."
Sabbagh expresses the pure industry viewpoint: safety is an individual, not an industry problem.
Given proper precautions, iron working can be made as safe as stock selling. In fact, the increasing death rates suffered by construction workers can be understood only in terms of an industry where losing workers' lives is cost effective.
The incentive to ignore construction safety is as towering as the cost of capital. Developers like Durst hear the tick-tick-tick of the interest rate clock on their construction loans. He's borrowed half a billion dollars. Interest costs on the Conde Nast will run higher than the construction costs. Developers naturally choose general contractors who will do the job fast, so tenants can move in and start paying those nine-figure costs.
The safety officer is paid by the contractor. His principle job is not preventing deaths. It's first of all, preventing safety procedures from costing money and delaying the project. And second, making sure that deaths are blamed on workers' negligence not on his employers. Safety comes third.
Given these priorities is it a surprise that self-regulation isn't working? What can you expect when control of the project is in the hands not of those who are at risk of dying, but by those who can profit by ignoring the risk?
Meanwhile, though, every year, a bad system is made worse by falling labor standards, weak unions, crooked safety inspectors, hostile media and indifferent public officials. Does anyone care?. Not the Mayor. He's concerned with compensating store owners who've lost business as a result of the crash. And the New York Post is worried about thirsty kittens left in a sealed off building. What about the growing total of dead and maimed construction workers? Does anyone think the reaction would be so low key if 23 developers had gone down on these projects?
The Hard Had News
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