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
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
"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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Hard Hat News is an independent, pro-union
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