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SHELLACKING THE PAINTERS DC 9 rolls over and surrenders to the contractors

Started by GREGORYABUTLER, May 16, 2011, 09:26:19 am

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District Council # 9 rolls over and surrenders to the contractors
By Gregory A. Butler

In the most deeply concessionary agreement that it has signed since the dark days of the Great Depression, District Council # 9, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, has given up 74 years of gains won by this city's unionized painters and decorators.

The Association of Master Painters and Decorators of New York, the once Lucchese Crime Family linked association that represents the majority of this city's unionized painting, wall paper hanging and architectural metal and glass contractors has won unprecedented gains.

In return for a very modest wage increase for commercial painters working in Manhattan below 96th St, the contractors will not have to pay even one red cent into the DC # 9 welfare fund for 2 years and the pension fund for 4 years. The union also agreed to a further $ 4.4 million cut to the health coverage received by painters and their families, basically by making union painters pay more money for less care.

There will also be an astonishing 67% reduction in the wages and benefits of painters working on residential jobs in Manhattan above 96th St, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Those painters will be reduced from the $ 60/hr wage and benefit scale received by union painters to a measly $ 22/hr in pay and benefits.

This brings DC # 9's union scale down to close to the level paid by non union painting contractors, and may trigger wage cuts on the non union side as a result.

The Painters Union also abolished its hiring hall - from now on, all painters will only work at a contractor's whim and will have no recourse to the union if they cannot find a job on their own.

This giveback will hurt Black, Asian and women painters the most, since most union painting contractors are White males.

White male contractors in the painting trade, and the construction industry as a whole have a long well documented history of discriminating against African American and female workers.

Those White male contractors also have a long history of giving White men an unfair preference for good paying jobs, and disproportionately hiring Latino men for low wage sweatshop jobs.

Even for the White guys, having one's employment totally dependent on the whim of a boss can be a problem if you fall out of his good graces and get fired.

So, for all tradespeople, the existence of a hiring hall system is a necessary safety net.

For some tradespeople (especially if they are African American or happen to be a woman) without hiring hall requirements they wouldn't even be in the industry at all!

The painting contractors also gained several ways to blacklist union painters they don't like from working in the industry. Union painters will now, at the whim of a boss, be subject to security background checks, alcohol testing, drug testing and  a "workplace performance plan" which gives painting contractors the right to kick a painter out of the union if he or she gets only 3 bad evaluations from the employer.

There are no appeals from those evaluations - they are solely at the whim of a boss.

The painting contractors also now have the authority to fire shop stewards merely by giving the union 24 hours notice. In addition to this special power to fire shop stewards, the stewards are also subject to the same menace that all other union painters now face of blacklisting based on security, alcohol, drugs and contractor evaluations.

Also, the contractors are now free to use low paid apprentices to do work normally done by journeylevel painters and the union can no longer prohibit employers from using methods or tools that endanger the work safety of painters.

On top of all this, the Association of Master Painters and District Council # 9 will enter into negotiations with the Real Estate Board of New York to impose even deeper givebacks on painters on commercial jobs. REBNY will be making similar demands on every construction union in the city.

To add insult to injury union painters will also be slapped with a one year wage freeze and now the bosses can start jobs at any time between 6 AM and 9 AM, giving up the customary 7 AM start time that has been the industry standard for over a century.

The Master Painters agreement will also be imposed on drywall tapers who work for drywall & ceilings contractors represented by the Association of Wall, Ceiling and Carpentry Industries - in their case, their contractors can now force them to work on stilts, a dangerous work method that District Council # 9 and its tapers local 1974 have fought against since the mid 1970s.

Union painters won't have a chance to vote on any of this since, like every construction union in New York City except for Electricians local 3, the Painters Union doesn't let its members vote on their contracts.

This would be bad enough if these concessions only affected the painters.

Unfortunately, these givebacks come at a time when the real estate developers and the General Contractors who run their jobs, represented by the Building Trades Employers Association and it's very vocal leader Louis Coletti, have demanded givebacks from every construction trade with the threat of deunionization if we do not roll over.

The BTEA has launched a massive public relations offensive against unionized construction workers, including letters to employees stapled to their paychecks, ads on the subway and a special website aimed directly at construction workers demanding that we lobby our unions and demand that they give in, a biased study published by the Manhattan Institute attacking union work rules and a public relations campaign in the Daily News and the Post attacking our unions for so called "featherbedding" work rules.

The Manhattan Institute report was quite explicit.

They not only want us to have our pay and benefits pushed down to non union levels, they also wanted to force union tradespeople to give up our loyalty to our unions and instead to pledge unconditional serf-like allegiance to whatever boss we may be working for at the moment.

Considering the fact that our employers hire us by the day and have the right to fire us at will at any time for any reason or no reason at all, this demand of loyalty is especially insulting.

Thirty union contracts come up this year.

Most of them expire on June 30.

The painters agreement expires first, on May 1 - ironically enough, that is a legacy of District Council # 9's former communist leaders, who ran the union from 1934 - 1947!

So basically, the painters got sandbagged on May Day.

District Council # 9, by surrendering to the Master Painters association, has set the stage for every other construction union to capitulate to the BTEA and their extortionate demands.

How did the New York building trades, once the strongest local unions in the world, get to a place where they were so weak? How did the New York Painters Union, once the most radical of the construction trades here, get to a point where they were the first to surrender?

Basically, this is the result of many years of construction unions subordinating themselves to the contractors and their selfish demands, as if the narrow class interests of our bosses were somehow the common interests of "the industry".

Let's take a brief look at how we got to this place - and what the hell we can do about it.

New York's construction unions emerged in 1850s and really came into their own during the struggles for the 8 hour day in the 1880s.

The early building trades unions were run by politically radical part time union delegates who worked on their tools by day and worked their union activism in during their spare time.

They used areawide strikes and protests to build their unions, to the point where the contractors had no choice but to come to terms with the unions in the latter part of the 19th century.

However, that acceptance came at a price. The unions were expected to show political loyalty to the contractors program and a commitment to managing worker discontent on the jobsites as well as the abandonment of the unions earlier socialist goals of abolishing capitalism.

The unions were also expected to go along with employer racial discrimination and to be junior partners in the cartels that major contractors built to keep out competition and to inflate the prices that they charged real estate developers to build for them.

As New York contractors began to build alliances with organized crime, the unions came along for the ride.

In the wake of a successful strike wave in 1916, gangsters, contractors and the right wing of the Carpenters Union leadership overthrew the elected leaders of the NYC Carpenters, put Irish Canadian gangster Robert Brindell in their place and established a price fixing cartel.

That particular racket only lasted for 5 years, however that set the tone for labor racketeer domination of New York building trades unions that would prevail for the next 80 years.

That also set the tone for construction union leaders collaborating with management and a narrow privileged layer of full time construction workers against the interests of the majority of construction workers who were only employed part time at their trades.

The Great Depression and the mass unemployment that it inflicted on the majority of New York construction workers disrupted this alliance for a brief time.

The left actually defeated the racketeers and came to power in Painters District Council # 9. This was because many union painters were Jewish immigrants with communist, socialist or labor Zionist politics, and the Jewish gangsters who, in league with the contractors and the Master Painters association, had come to dominate the union were weaker than their Italian and Irish counterparts in other trades.

Louis Weinstock, a DC # 9 business agent and a leading member of the Communist Party who had come to national prominence as an advocate of relief for the unemployed, became the district council business manager in 1934.

This put the Painters Union on the far left of the building trades. The only other communist led construction local was a small independent elevator mechanics union, although there was heavy communist influence among janitors represented by the Building Service Employees International Union.

As modest as that left wing influence was it was strong enough to force New York contractors to concede the 7 hour work day and the 5 day workweek in 1936. The 7 hour day didn't catch on beyond the New York building trades, but the 5 day workweek did and by the end of the decade the two day weekend (which we take for granted today) became standard throughout the country in all industries.

There were limits to DC # 9's radicalism, though.

The Weinstock administration never challenged the union's de facto racial segregation. On paper, any man who could get a union painting job could join, in practice, only Jewish, Greek and Italian men were hired (generally by bosses from the same ethnic background). African American men, even if they had painting experience, simply need not apply.

The contractor's prerogative to fire any painter at any time for any reason or no reason at also went unchallenged, as did the unequal distribution of work where some painters, the "company men", worked every day (even in the depths of the Depression) while others, the "local men" only worked occasionally.

Also, the relationships between union painting contractors and organized crime went unchallenged as well.

Even with its severe limitations, this would be a high water mark for building trades militancy - it was all downhill from here.

The Communist Party gradually drifted to the right. As the party sank into the orbit of the Democratic Party, its union activists were under pressure to keep a lid on class struggle. That only became more dramatic once World War II broke out and the Communist Party's priority was aiding the Soviet Union's war effort rather than leading American workers in struggle.

By 1947, the Communists in the Painters Union had been so weakened by their party's rightward drift that they were unable to hold onto power any longer.

They were driven out by right wing union officers in league with the Master Painters association and a new group of gangsters, the Lucchese Crime Family.

The Luccheses were an Italian group affiliated with a broad syndicate of Italian American gangsters collectively known as cosa nostra. They'd displaced the Jewish gangsters as the dominant labor racketeers in the painting and decorating industry.

The great post World War II prosperity masked the immediate economic effects of the rightward drift of the Painters Union.

Everybody was making good money and, between federal housing subsidies for veterans and the new labor-management health insurance and pension plans, painters and other building trades workers were doing very well.

This prosperity prevailed well into the 1970s and contributed to a rightward shift in the world outlook of unionized construction workers.

Also, the struggles of Black and Puerto Rican workers for a piece of this prosperity - and the unwillingness of White workers to share (since they had only recently gotten their piece of the pie) - also contributed to the rightward drift of tradesmen.

In the Painters Union's case, many Jewish painters were pushed to the right by the failure of the communist and socialist parties of Europe to save the Jews from the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel as the one Jewish run safe haven for Jews in an Antisemetic world.

In the mid 1960s the complacency of the New York building trades was shaken by a maoist led armed movement of minority construction workers known as the Coalition.

These groups (there were about 60 of them, mostly Black and Latino but one group was all Chinese) fought de facto segregation in construction by invading jobsites and forcing bosses to hire workers of color - and forcing the unions to let these newly hired workers join.

Like the Carpenters, Bricklayers and Laborers, the Painters were an "open trade" - if you could get a boss to hire you, the union had to let you join.

Unlike the "closed trades" (Plumbers, Operating Engineers, Electricians ect) who could use licensing and testing restrictions to keep their trades segregated, these unions had no choice but to allow Coalition members hired by union contractors to enroll in their ranks.

Like the other unions, DC # 9 was reluctant to integrate but had no choice in the matter. This echoed the attitude of the Master Painters association, who, like other trade associations in other industries, didn't want Black men or Latinos in their industry. However, they also were in a situation where the Coalitions basically forced them to integrate.

However, the real game changer was yet to come.

New York City repealed rent control in 1971.

This led to an orgy of profiteering, illegal evictions and arson for profit by New York landlords.

They bullied working class White tenants in Manhattan to leave their apartments to replace them with more affluent tenants or to tear the buildings down and replace them with nicer buildings that they could charge higher rents for.

This came to be known as "gentrification".

In the Black and Latino ghettoes of Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn and in the poor White slums of Far Rockaway, Queens, landlords hired arsonists to burn down buildings that could not be gentrified.

The City of New York made matters worse by subsidizing the construction of new luxury housing with $ 784 million worth of long term low interest loans.

When the short term high interest funding that paid for that $ 784 million in financing came due in June 1975, the City of New York went bankrupt and a junta of Wall Street financiers staged what amounted to a coup d'├ętat and seized control of the City's finances.

This hurt construction workers in the short term by causing construction jobs all over the city to come to a screeching halt overnight.

The long term hit came 3 years later in 1978, when the City of New York began using non union contractors to renovate buildings destroyed in the fires. To evade Davis Bacon Act prevailing wage requirements, the public funds were laundered through not for profit community organizations.

The unions did nothing to resist this. Far from it; the NYC District Council of Carpenters, the dominant union in residential construction, actually agreed to a WAGE CUT for workers on union renovation jobs!

Emboldened by the City's unionbusting and the Carpenters Union givebacks, many union carpentry contractors began paying their company man carpenters less than union scale wages in cash off the books. The District Council of Carpenters stood by and let it happen.

Painters DC # 9 balked at this, not so much because they cared about their members but because the Painters Union was controlled by the Lucchese crime family and the pay cut was authorized by their rivals, the Genovese crime family, who controlled the Carpenters.

Painters local 1974, a drywall tapers local who's members worked for carpentry contractors, actually called a strike to defend their union scale and to block the use of stilts, a dangerous work method the carpentry contractors wanted to impose on tapers because they can work faster on stilts than they can on regular stepladders and scaffolds.

The Genovese family-controlled Metropolitan New York Drywall Association broke the strike.

They were aided by the District Council of Carpenters and Metallic Lathers local 46, whose members kept working side by side with scab tapers during the tapers strike. None of the other construction unions honored Painters local 1974's picketlines either.

Even more disgracefully, the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Union actually openly recruited scabs to break Painters local 1974's strike! The Plasterers chartered an all scab local, Plasterers local 530, run by a Genovese family soldier, Louis Moscatiello, Sr, who wasn't even a construction worker (he was an insurance agent)!

It was all downhill from there.

Over the next 30 years, residential construction was largely deunionized, union contractors who remained in the residential sector got used to all but openly violating their contracts, and the unions fell from representing almost 100% of the city's 250,000 construction workers to only having 100,000 of the city's remaining 200,000 union members in their ranks.

Also, the floor under construction prices that was maintained by the Genovese family and their construction price fixing rackets has been gone since the early 1990s. In the absence of the stability provided by mafia price fixing, contractors can (and do) charge as little as they can get away with and make up the lost profits by underpaying their workers.

It was only a matter of time before the contractors would openly demand the reduction of union wages to scab levels and now that moment has come.

The General Contractors, the large firms who manage construction projects for real estate developers and big corporate clients, have been aggressively calling for lower wages and weakened union work rules.

Starting with the successful attack on Teamsters local 282's shop steward system by the Contractors Association of Greater New York (CAGNY) back in 1994 the GCs have called for giveback after giveback after giveback.

Now, all of the associations representing the bosses are united in their demand that construction workers pay for the financial and real estate crisis that Wall Street created.

The Building Trades Employers Association (BTEA), New York Building Congress, Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), General Contractors Association (GCA) and CAGNY, the groups that represent the big boys in our industry, are the ones leading the charge.

The billionaires of BTEA, the Building Congress, REBNY, GCA and CAGNY have leaned on the millionaires, their subcontractors, to join in their attack on us.

Under pressure from the moneymen, the subcontractor associations have joined in the fight and the Association of Master Painters, Association of Wall, Ceiling and Carpentry Industries,  Building Contractors Association, Cement League, NY Electrical Contractors Association, Sheet Metal and AC Contractors Association, Association of Contracting Plumbers ect are calling for massive pay cuts and givebacks, so they can reduce their prices to do work for the developers

The Carpenters Union had led the giveback charge, giving Wall Ceiling, BCA and the Cement League a 20% pay cut on luxury housing jobs and a 40% pay cut on affordable housing jobs in Manhattan above 96th St and the outer boroughs.

The Painters Union gave even bigger givebacks to the Master Painters association, as I discussed at the top of this article.

This is on top of givebacks that all the trades gave back in 2009 in the form of a Project Labor Agreement for a dozen major commerical jobs in Midtown.

None of the unions are carrying out any kind of organized resistance to these atrocious demands. It looks like they want to roll over without a fight, perhaps in hopes that the State Legislature, seeing how far union pay scales have fallen, will agree to require that affordable housing jobs be paid this sharply reduced prevailing rate.

So far, the only resistance to these massive givebacks has come from a tiny handful of workers (including this writer) who are planning to protest against the 20% givebacks.

On Tuesday May 24 at 5PM, we're going to be protesting at a $ 750 a plate banquet that the BTEA is hosting for New York State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver at Cipriani's Ballroom, an exclusive catering hall at 55 Wall Street in the heart of the Financial District.

This is only a small protest in the face of a massive attack on 100,000 workers. However, it only takes one little spark to start a fire and as the protests in Wisconsin showed everybody, American workers are sick and tired of making sacrifices to enrich the corporate rich. This is where we draw that line in the sand.

-   commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER, LOCAL 157 CARPENTER
               Originally published on Monday, May 16, 2011