By Tom Robbins
March 13, 2000
The renovation of a massive
post office building in lower Manhattan has launched a test of
wills between an asbestos contractor and the union representing
asbestos removal workers.
Asbestos Workers Local 78,
a division of the Laborers union, has picketed and deployed the
building trades' most popular weapons, 10-foot-tall rubber rats,
to protest the practices of AIA Environmental Corp.
The union accuses the firm
of routinely paying its workers late and failing to pay Social
Security, workers' compensation and unemployment taxes.
Workers also complain that
they're forced to work as independent contractors, getting no
vacation time or sick days.
"First, they don't pay
their workers for weeks at a time, then they hire them as independent
contractors, leaving them completely unprotected," said Local
78 President Sal Speziale.
Union officials say it's the
modus operandi of AIA owner Emil Braun.
Braun co-owned Asbestos Industries
of America, a defunct firm that operated from the same address
in Astoria, Queens. It was barred from doing state work by the
New York State Department of Labor in 1999 for failing to pay
In an interview with Working
Papers, Braun admitted being four weeks behind in paying his workers.
"We have so many jobs going on," he said.
Braun also acknowledged that
until recently, he had treated his workers as subcontractors.
"They get their own training
and have their own tools," said Braun. "It seemed to
make sense, especially when Mrs. Clinton was looking to give every
employee health insurance through their employer. Somebody could
work for me for three days. It is the nature of the industry."
The union has taken its complaints
to the U.S. Postal Service and Boston Properties, a real estate
firm headed by Daily News Chairman Mortimer Zuckerman, which holds
a lease on the building at 90 Church St. and is serving as construction
adviser as the property is converted to office space.
A spokeswoman for the Postal
Service said the agency is mandated to ensure that contractors
pay the federal prevailing wage.
"Beyond that, we don't
get involved. We are looking at the cost factor, their ability
to deliver within the time frame we are looking at," said
the spokeswoman, Diane Todd.
"Apparently, [the Laborers]
are unhappy with a contract led by the U.S. Postal Service. Their
efforts aimed at Boston Properties are misguided and inappropriate,"
said Boston Properties Senior Vice President Robert Selsam.
Workers for the firm said they
have little say about their status.
Richard, 26, who is from Ecuador,
said he worked 2 1/2 years for AIA without vacations or sick days
and with no deductions taken from his paycheck. He said he and
other non-English speaking workers sign a lengthy document - in
English - in which they declared themselves independent subcontractors.
"They told us if we didn't
sign, we would be fired," Richard said through a translator
provided by the union.
Braun denied that anyone was
threatened. He also defended treating his workers as subcontractors,
although he said he now makes payroll deductions
Braun accused the union of
waging a pressure campaign against him after he rebuffed their
request that he sign a contract. "I met with the union
people; it was out of central casting, a lot of 'dese' and 'dose'
and things of that nature," said Braun.
Two years ago, he said, the
union upped the ante. "They started picketing my job site
with this Mickey Mouse," referring to the 10-foot-tall inflated
rodents. Braun said the campaign against him already had cost
him several customers.
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