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The High Cost Of Low Wages

Started by GREGORYABUTLER, April 12, 2011, 03:14:57 am

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CHAPTER  11 -  "...shared sacrifice...."  (2007 - present day)

The stalling of the World Trade Center project was one of the first signs of the end of the mid 2000's building boom.

The real estate market reached bottom, and a whole lot of those overpriced luxury apartments (many of them built with HPD "affordable housing" funding) were now going to end up going unsold.

Which didn't stop developers from building those apartments, of course, each with the hopes that they would magically sell their units and make back at least SOME of their investment, and it would be the other guy who would get stuck with a building full of unsold units and end up going bankrupt instead of them.

2007 saw a new organization emerge on the construction labor scene, seeking to advocate for non union South Asian brickpointers, New York Construction Workers United.

NYCWU was a "workers center" - a social services organization, run by lawyers, social workers and other middle class professionals - which filed lawsuits on behalf of workers who had been cheated out of their wages or otherwise abused by their scab contractor bosses.

New York Construction Workers United was closely associated with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (the latter group a workers center active in advocating for cab drivers - another group of workers long ago abandoned by the unions).

Basically, NYCWU was filling the vacuum left by the Bricklayers Union's and the Laborers Union's refusal to organize brickpointers, despite those workers willingness to organize and fight if given the opportunity to do so.

Unfortunately, the NYCWU was run by middle class professionals rather than by brickpointers and, instead of mobilizing strikes and other job actions, their strategy was to file lawsuits against scab contractors.

Considering the facts that many of these workers were undocumented, many were paid in cash off the books and that some of the contractors themselves were off the books entrepreneurs who's firms weren't even incorporated, the strategy had severe flaws.

The biggest problem was, the workers were to be passive plaintiffs in lawsuits settled behind closed doors by attorneys, rather than actively using their power on the job to shut down production, which is NEVER a good class struggle strategy.

Beyond that, the NYCWU embarked on this campaign just as the residential sector was crashing.

That could have been a great time to call quickie strikes to bring up labor standards by forcing desperate contractors to concede while they were weak, but was a bad time to be filing lawsuits against bosses who were on the edge of bankruptcy because of the collapse of the market.

Sadly, due to the collapse of the economy, the New York Construction Workers United campaign never even had a chance to try their approach to construction worker organizing, flawed as it was.

The safety crisis accelerated in 2008, with two major crane collapses on union hirise residential jobs on the Upper East Side, killing a total of 7 operating engineers, a laborer and a member of the general public.

The union's reaction to this was pathetic in the extreme.

Louis Coletti, the head of the NY Building Congress and the Building Trades Employers Association, (in other words, the mouthpiece of the bosses) spoke for "the industry", with the unions all but dead silent (even Operating Engineers local 14, who had suffered the bulk of the deaths in the incidents).

The New York City Department of Buildings came out with new regulations. However, even with its newly appointed reform commissioner, Robert LiMandri, they had a limited pool of inspectors and a culture of systematic safety rule violations as a way of life on the jobsites.

The unions and the contractors agreed to a new set of regulations, and more safety classes  but, on the jobsites, production was still priority one and everything else - including the lives of construction workers - was secondary.

The construction unions absolutely refused to take any independent steps to fight safety violations on the jobsites.

At best, the District Council of Carpenters and Electricians local 3 would have their safety departments call OSHA on the more egregious violations. However, no attempt was made to lead worker resistance on the jobsites to unsafe and abusive work practices that put construction workers lives at risk.

In short, the cavalier attitude about the lives and deaths of workers that was the de facto policy on scab jobs was now the de facto policy on union jobs as well, with no meaningful resistance from the unions.

As the market flattened and the stock market boom that had fueled it came to a sudden and violent halt, construction jobs began to dramatically slow down with some jobs being discontinued altogether (the first time this had happened in New York City since the 1975 fiscal crisis).

As Wall Street spun even deeper into crisis in 2008, jobs suddenly stopped all over the city - and, when major financial district firms like AIG insurance and Lehman Brothers failed, the construction sector came to a sudden jarring halt.

Office interior construction fell by over 40% as firms cut back on discretionary capital spending.

Several new Manhattan office building jobs simply did not start, or only began very limited foundation work.

Residential work in previously booming areas - Lower Manhattan, Harlem, Williamsburg, the South Shore of Staten Island - also dramatically slowed down.

The unions already had a large pool of unemployed members - particularly local men - and now it was taking longer for them to be sent out to work. Company men and the guys who worked for cash were now losing out on OT and some even were getting laid off as well.

On the scab side, subminimum wage undocumented immigrants who had worked steady 60 hour weeks were now lucky to work 3 days a week and many of the better paid non union workers were also finding themselves jobless as well.

It was the worst crisis to hit New York construction workers since 1975.

Clients, developers, bankers, GCs and subcontractors were united for once in a demand for a wholesale rollback of wages and conditions.

Among other givebacks, they called for a 25% reduction in labor costs, the repeal of the 7 hour day and the abolition of a whole list of union rules.

For many of the subs, these open and legal wage cuts (which they'd have to pass up to the GC's) were parallel to all of the secret wage cuts they had illegally imposed on the jobsites.

The unions - who had already made a lot of these givebacks on NYC School Construction Authority jobsites - were more than willing to impose "shared sacrifice" on their members.

In other words, there was not even a token attempt to resist the giveback demands of the bosses.

Of course, the leaders of the building trades unions did have some distractions to deal with - yet another racketeering case.

Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D - Flushing, Queens), the head of the Central Labor Council and the Electricians local 3 business agent in charge of the streetlight electrician's J Division, was convicted of a variety of crimes.

Assemblyman McLaughlin's offenses ranged from the appalling to the pathetic.

He let streetlight contractors use non union labor on residential subdivision jobs in Staten Island.

He used streetlight electricians for a variety of personal tasks (ranging from spying on his daughter's dates to cleaning his mansion to driving to Albany to make sure he got marked present at Assembly sessions he didn't bother to attend).

He had contractors give his three mistresses no show jobs.

He extorted payoffs from electricians who stole "mongo" (scrap metal) from jobsites.

He forced a group of electricians to buy his wife a Mercedes Benz.

Most nauseatingly, he stole money from the little league program the union ran for the children of electricians.

McLaughlin's conviction marked the first investigation of labor racketeering in Electricians local 3, a union that had always had a squeaky clean image compared to the rest of the trades.

The state also forced McLaughlin to become an informant - although his main focus so far has been on corrupt Democratic elected officials rather than labor racketeers.

At the same time the McLaughlin case ended in his conviction, Operating Engineers local 14 was getting investigated for helping well connected but incompetent White men get hirise crane operator licenses that they didn't deserve to have.

This probe came in the wake of the NYC Department of Building's investigation into the 2008 crane collapses. Tragically, it showed that the leaders of local 14 cared more about providing jobs for the incompetent relatives of crane rental firm owners than they did about the safety of their members and other tradespeople.

The leaders of local 14, and their sister local, Operating Engineers local 15, had also done nothing to organize the non union crane rental firms that were popping up in the New York market, which made it possible for scab GC's to do hirise jobs without having to use union operators for their cranes, hoists, pile driving rigs and excavators.

Incidentally, during the same years that local 14 officers were helping unqualified White males with relatives in crane rental company management get crane licenses that they did not deserve, the same union had gone out of its way to force Black and Latino males and women of any color who wanted to be crane operators to go through their apprenticeship program.

But, the catch 22 was, once the minorities and women completed the apprenticeship, both locals 14 and 15 went out of their way to prevent these qualified trained crane operators from getting the licenses they'd earned!

Apparently, racism, sexism and patronage were more important that safety!

Which may explain the otherwise puzzling silence of local 14's union officers after the 2008 crane collapses that killed a total of 8 of their members!

In a climate like that, no wonder the construction unions were ready to roll over for the contractors, at the expense of the majority of their members.

In 2009, the contractors got a concession deal - initially limited to 14 hirise jobs in Manhattan - that included deep cuts in labor costs and major work rule givebacks, the most significant of which is the abandonment of the 7 hour day.

Union tradespeople were told this deal wouldn't affect other jobs (we later found out that was a lie - that deal opened the door to the current ultimatum that we face)

Just a few weeks after that deal was made, the District Council of Carpenters and its largest affiliate, Carpenters local 608, were hit by a federal indictment.

The indictment charged the head of the District Council, several local 608 officers and shop stewards, contractor Finbar O'Neil and Association of Wall-Ceiling and Carpentry Industries head Joseph Oliveri of conspiring to help On Par and 5 other contractors violate their union contracts by - among other things - paying cash.

The international Carpenters Union stepped in, imposed a trusteeship and fired the indicted union officers.

Again, it was the same pattern, the officers of a construction union making an under the table deal with a contractor to allow them to secretly underpay their workers, which would enable them to pocket the extra profits from paying low wages, without having to share the loot with the GCs and the developers.

And this betrayal was allegedly carried out for a mere pittance - allegedly less than $ 1 million in cash bribes, plus super bowl tickets and a few beers and sandwiches here and there.

After over two decades of government intervention, this was still going on.

The feds and the state still hadn't figured out how to stop it, because the interests of the narrow privileged layer of company men that remained the social base of the union leaderships in every union but the Mason Tenders were still identical to the interests of the contractors.

Meanwhile, yet another trusteeship was imposed on the District Council of Carpenters by its parent union. This time, its corrupt leader Mike Forde was ousted from office, around the same time that he went on trial.

This time, Forde was convicted and received a long prison sentence.

In a wave of cases after Forde's conviction, the entire leadership of Carpenters local 608 were ousted from office one by one, with several also facing criminal charges.

This caused a crisis in the leadership of the local, which led to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters stepping in, disbanding its largest affiliate and reassigning the locals Westside and Bronx territories and its entire membership to the Eastside carpenters local 157.

While turmoil swept the largest unions in the building trades, there actually was some positive change in one of the smaller trades on the periphery of the industry, the commerical movers.

Retail Wholesale Department Store Union local 116, a supermarket warehouse workers union, began an organizing drive at Flat Rate Movers, one of the low wage Russian Jewish-owned moving van lines that have pushed movers wages to rock bottom levels.

Unfortunately, RWDSU's campaign, while very militant, got bogged down in the NLRB process and so far the owners of Flat Rate have been able to avoid being unionized.

That wasn't the only forward movement in the moving industry. In Teamsters local 814, movers built an opposition movement in the wake of massive givebacks in the 2006 contract that created a new low wage second tier of union movers. That caucus, led by a 28 year old art mover named Jason Ide, won the 2010 elections in the local and began to fight to abolish two tier in the local and to organize the non union segment of the industry.

The new militancy among the movers, and the continued efforts of the Carpenters, Painters, Mason Tenders and the Brooklyn Ironworkers to organize - however limited by the NLRB process that these campaigns were - were genuine bright spots in an otherwise dismal building trades scene.

Meanwhile, work began to rebound in the city. The pace of work was nowhere near what it was in the mid 2000's, but residential work in Harlem and Williamsburg began to revive and there was an uptick in commercial work in Manhattan. Most notably, the new World Trade Center job was finally starting to pick up the pace, with structural steel work moving at a rapid clip at all 4 of the new towers.

At that very moment, when the market was recovering without labor concessions, Louis Coletti and the Building Trades Employers Association issued that 26 point ultimatum that I talked about at the start of this essay.

Coletti's ultimatum strikes at the heart of gains we've won over the course of 140 years of struggle.

The BTEA wants to take away the 7 hour day we won in 1936, shorten our lunch and coffee breaks (a real hardship for workers on the upper floors of hirise jobs) and make Saturday a straight time day.

They also want to eliminate union rules that mandate temporary lighting, heating, ventilation and toilet facilities on the jobs, an the assignment of workers to service those temporary services, leaving the provision of those vital workplace needs to the whims of the GC's.  

Not only is that a direct attack on the jobs of the electricians, operating engineers, elevator operators and laborers who maintain those systems, it's also a direct slap in the face to every tradesperson.

To the bosses, we're just production animals, not civilized human beings, so we don't deserve to have toilets, heating, ventilation - hell, we don't even deserve to have decent lighting to work by! Instead of having a right to a decent workplace, those necessities will only be provided at the whim of a boss (to whom our needs are far less important than their profits!)

They also want to gut work rules and past practices we've fought for over generations.

The bosses also want to move as much of our work as possible out of the field and have prefabricated building segments built off site by lower paid workers. In the event that they choose to use non union shops to build those subassemblies, they want to take away our right to refuse to install scab material

That last demand is not only an attack on us, but it's also an attack on the future tenants of those buildings. Structures made in segments off site are not going to be as structurally sound as buildings that are built from the ground up in the field.

As our brothers and sisters in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan found out the hard way during the recent earthquake, prefabricated buildings can be deathtraps in the event of natural disasters.

New York is in a high risk zone for hurricanes and is also a city very prone to heavy rain and blizzards.

We have the strongest building code in America for a REASON!

However, to the moneymen in our business, the long term safety of the public (and decent wages for workers) are far less important than short term profits.

Speaking of cheap unskilled labor, the contractors also want to have more apprentices on the jobs. Their apparent ultimate goal is to import the scab contractor practice of having a large force of very low paid low skilled workers on the job, with a few skilled tradespeople to supervise the helpers (and fix all their mistakes).

Again, not only is this an attack on construction workers, this is also an attack on the general public's right to have safe and well constructed buildings.

The bosses also want to impose mandatory alcohol and drug testing on our industry. This wouldn't be so bad if it was part of a broader program to aid addicted tradespeople. However, this is just another way of singling out the most vulnerable workers to be fired.

Finally, the bosses want us to take a 20% pay cut.

Coletti and the BTEA have made it clear that if their demands are not met they will start moving to using scab subs and non union workers on Midtown Manhattan jobsites.

Basically they've thrown down the gauntlet, and it's obvious that they think they can get away with that and our unions will give in without a fight.

Coletti and the BTEA no doubt recognized that the unions were at a historic low point. Between the indictments and the fact that the majority of work in the city was now down non union (50% of the work in Manhattan below 96th St, 70% of the work in Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs) the bosses no doubt smelled the blood in the water and went in for the kill.

Lehr Construction went even further.

That interior construction GC, which has been union for decades went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and set up a non union alter ego company, Parallel Construction, to do scab interior work.

Parallel's first job was at the Yale Club in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. They got challenged by the Carpenters and were forced to use union subs on that job, but the very fact that they even tried to pull a stunt like that is a bad sign.

Meanwhile, developer Bruce Ratner moved to use prefabricated modules for the HPD subsidized apartment buildings at his Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn.

Ratner claimed that his firm was going to use union cabinetmakers at his offsite module shop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but those carpenters make less than half of the outside construction carpenter rate ($ 20/hr vs. $ 46/hr) and they  work an 8 hour straight time day.

This is an extra special slap in the face since the unions had gone out of their way to campaign for Ratner's megadevelopment, in the face of strong opposition from working class tenants and small business owners in Prospect Heights.

One of the excuses for supporting Atlantic Yards was all the good paying union construction jobs that Ratner was going to create, and now here he is trying to undercut the wages of union carpenters!

Another developer, Steven Ross, demanded the right for his firm to use out of town heavy equipment operators who do not have New York City crane operator licenses. He also wants to eliminate union master mechanics (shop stewards) and oilers (apprentices) from his hirise jobsites.

Ross' demand was echoed by the Real Estate Board of New York, which wanted those same givebacks for all of the city's developers.

Of course, neither Ross nor REBNY gave a good God damn about the potential safety hazards of having unqualified operators running their cranes.

However, considering the Operating Engineers Union's history of helping unqualified White men who were the relatives of bosses get crane licenses they were not qualified for and obstructing women and minorities who were trained and qualified from getting the licenses they had earned, it would be hard for the union to have any credibility in speaking out against this attack.

The union response to all of these attacks has been dead silence.

The unions didn't even mount a public response when Coletti and BTEA took out ads on the subway, directly appealing to workers to lobby their unions to support the 26 point ultimatum or face a full scale deunionization offensive by the contractors.

Four years ago, when our brothers and sisters were dying on the street in crane collapses, our unions let Coletti be the spokesperson for "the industry" and refused to independently advocate for workers -  this attack is, in large part, the legacy of that capitulation by our unions to the bosses.

The question is, what are the building trades unions going to do now?

CONCLUSION -  "whose city?"  (present day  - the future)

Unfortunately, it's sadly obvious our leaders have chosen the path of passivity in the face of this unprecedented attack by the bosses.

This is truly tragic because, unlike any other moment in the last 40 years of American labor history, this is a point in time where we might actually fight and win!

We have before us the shining example of the Wisconsin state employees, who challenged their union busting Governor Scott Walker with mass rallies, illegal "blue flu" style wildcat sickout strikes and the occupation of their state capitol building.

The bold actions of those workers were embraced by workers, union and non union, civil service and private sector, across the nation and the world - for the first time since President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union back in 1981, American workers are actually on the offensive.

If those sisters and brothers could boldly fight the power like that, why the hell can't we?

The answer to that question is simple - leadership (or the lack thereof).

The folks who run our unions have been unwilling to lead us in a fight for our interest independent of the contractors. Ninety years of "labor management partnership", legal and otherwise, has led us to the point where our unions can't take a public position independent of the employers associations.

This was made pathetically clear 4 years ago during the epidemic of crane collapses and scaffold failures, when the spokesman of the bosses, Louis Coletti, put himself forward as the voice of "the industry" and the unions fell in lockstep right behind him!

Now we find ourselves facing an ultimatum from the contractors and they have made a credible threat to go scab if we say no.

Our backs are against the wall and it's time to fight.

We have to fight back and we have to reach out to the broader labor movement and the broader public to do so.

That's not as hard as it sounds.

Within the labor movement, many union members have been energized by the Spirit of Madison - inspired by the Wisconsin events, they are more willing than ever to take to the streets if they are given a viable possibility to do so.

It helps that there are a lot of New Yorkers who have grievances against our bosses.

New York is a city of renters. Eighty percent of the population lives in rented apartments, not just workers and the jobless poor but also middle class people and even some rich folks. Also, many New York City businesses operate out of rented premises.

Ever since the repeal of Rent Control by Mayor Lindsay in 1971, landlords and developers have run roughshod over the people of New York City, bleeding the city treasury dry with their demands for taxpayer subsidies and sucking money from our pockets with extortionate rent increases.

If we were to embrace the tenants fight as our fight (and it is - many construction workers who live within the city limits are renters too) our allies in this city would be legion.

Also, we have to join forces with the building service workers and hotel workers - their bosses are our bosses' clients so we have enemies in common.

Of course, I have no illusions about the present union leadership doing any of this. They have a deep social base in that minority of construction workers who, thanks to family, ethnic or social ties with the bosses, have steady jobs in our industry. That aristocratic layer of company men are allies of the bosses and their interests are separate from and hostile to ours.

The local man majority in the unions would have to wage a struggle to capture the leadership of the unions, and to expand them by organizing our non union brothers and sisters as quickly as possible for us to be able to do that.

The best we can expect from our present leaders is that some of our unions (Mason Tenders, DC 9, Carpenters, Ironworkers local 361, Teamsters local 814, RWDSU local 116) will do one contractor at a time NLRB organizing campaigns.

 Actually, we can't really knock the leaders of those unions for that - at least they are TRYING to do SOMETHING in the face of the crisis, and we have to give them credit for that.

That's a stark contrast the leadership of the rest of the building trades unions, who sit idly by and do nothing in the face of increasing attacks by the bosses - or, worse yet, actively collaborate with the bosses in those attacks.

The Coletti attack is a shot across the bow - this is our Scott Walker moment and we need to respond like the workers in Wisconsin have.

APPENDIX  - the Building Trades Employers Association's 26 point ultimatum:


1. Elimination of non productive jobs/practices; everybody works a full eight hour day;

2. Elimination of non productive work rules;

3. No limitations of the contractor's choice of materials, techniques, methods, technologies or            designs;

4. No limitations on the use and installation of equipment, machinery, packaged units, pre-cast, pre-fabricated, pre-finished or pre-assembled materials or devices;

5. No limitations on the use of tools or other labor saving devices;

6. No limitations on materials, supplies or equipment, regardless of their source or origin;

7. Elimination of prohibitions of or restrictions on work which is performed off-site on materials or products modified or fabricated for installation on the project;

8. Elimination of rules, customs or practices that, in the exclusive judgment of the contractor/employer, limit or restrict the productivity or efficiency of employees; provided that safety priorities are maintained;

9. Elimination of temporary services unless requested by the Owner/Construction Manager; temporary facilities will remain under the control of the construction manager;

10. Coffee breaks may be consumed at the work station; and only during the times allocated for such breaks;

11. All workers shall be at their assigned work stations at starting time;

12. Employees shall not leave their work stations for the lunch break until ten minutes before the break starts;

13. All workers shall be back at their work stations at the end of the lunch break;

14. The standard work week is 40 hours a week and 8 hours a day at straight time rates;

15. All overtime shall be paid after 40 hours at the rate of 1 ½ ;

16. Flexible starting time as determined by the contractor/employer;

17. Staggered starting times within each Trade, as determined by each contractor;

18. Shift work shall be paid for with a 10% differential;

19. Seven standard holidays;

20. Contractor/employer established and published work rules and a code of conduct;

21. Saturday make-up day at straight time in the even work is cancelled for inclement weather;

22. Only working Shop Stewards selected from Journeymen on the job;

23. No tolerance policy for non performance or a poor work ethic;

24. Increased apprenticeship to journeymen ratios;

25. Mandatory drug and alcohol testing; and

26. A 20% reduction in the wage/benefit package.


-   commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER, LOCAL 157 CARPENTER
Originally published on Tuesday, April 12, 2011