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Sheetrock Sweatshop

Started by GREGORYABUTLER, May 23, 2012, 07:28:33 pm

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how New York's scab contractors make millions
off the backs of their low wage tradespeople


New York's boutique hotel construction sector has been just about the only branch of the building industry that hasn't been crippled by the recession caused by the Wall Street meltdown of 2007.

Small luxury hotels serving rich travelers have opened up all over the city, especially in recently gentrified parts of the outer boroughs that are popular with artists and entertainers - especially Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

While the room rents for these hotels are very high, the wages of the men and women who build them are quite low. Wages range anywhere from $ 12 - $ 25/hr with no benefits, far below the New York City area prevailing wage of $ 46/hr plus benefits for carpenters.

Building high class buildings with low wage labor is very profitable for the owners of these boutique hotels - and for the contractors who supply them with cheap labor.

One of those contractors is Flintlock Construction, owned by brothers Andrew and Steven ("Chip") Weiss. The Weiss brothers are probably the most aggressive scab contractors in the city, trying very hard to break into market areas that have remained all union, such as hirise construction.

Most scab contractors here stick with buildings that are less than 12 stories, a market segment they have come to almost completely dominate over the past 20 years (virtually 100% of the residential structures less than 12 stories tall in this city are built scab).

They avoid higher projects because that means they can operate without having to rent a crane, which in the New York City market area means dealing with a crane rental contractor that has a contract with the Operating Engineers union and uses union crane operators.

Flintlock went out and brought a crane in Chicago to enable them to do hirise jobs without having to have union crane operators on their sites. To date, Flintlock's highest project is a 33 story hotel, built all non union.

They've come a long way since the company's first incarnation in the early 1990s.

Back then they were Diversified Flintlock, a low income housing renovation general contractor owned by the Weiss brothers, their father (now deceased) and DeCosta "Bobo" Headley, a shady Brooklyn Democratic Party activist who's co-ownership of the firm enabled them to bid on city funded low income housing renovation jobs as a "minority owned" company (Headley, unlike the Weiss family, is African American).

In later years, minus their late father their African American faceman Bobo Headley, the brothers Weiss and their now renamed firm, Flintlock, found their niche in boutique hotel construction.

In this market segment, hotel developers like Sam Chang use money from private equity funds to build hotels that have marquee names like Hilton or Marriott (with room rates to match) but are built and operated on a discount basis.

The secret to their success is cheap labor - low wage non union tradespeople to build their hotels and low paid non union hotel workers to operate them once they are opened.

This bold challenge to the union in hirise construction (an all union market segment here since before World War I) is a severe danger for the unionized trades here, especially at a time when there is high unemployment in the industry, both on the union side and the scab side and we need to put a stop to it sooner rather than later.

There has been a slight uptick in construction, with many developers applying for permits on the Far West Side and in Harlem, the big hotspots of residential apartment house construction in the 1990s and the 2000s.

A lot of that work went scab back then, more of it could go scab now.

This time, the scab contractors might not confine themselves to the residential sector.

There have already been inroads by non union furniture installation contractors into the office interior work sector, a market area that has long been overwhelmingly unionized.

We've even seen inroads of non union work in the trade show sector, a market segment that has been almost entirely union since the 1920s.  

The Frieze Art Fair, a major art show in London, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, decided to start a New York City edition of their show this year.

They built the biggest free standing tent in the world to house the show out on Randall's island, and they did the entire job, both tent building and the installation of the booths inside the tent, 100% non union, with scab contractors that pay their workers only $ 12/hr. Despite vigorous union picketing of both the Randall's Island site of the show and Deutsche Bank headquarters in Manhattan, the show managers have not budged about setting up their show union.

In other words, dealing with non union contractors and developers who use them is a necessity, or we might lose all our work (it's happened to construction unions in other parts of the country).

So far, the building trades answer here has been public exposure of scab contractors like Flintlock through informational picketing (with the New York District Council of Carpenters doing almost all of that public exposure) and attempts by the Building Trades Council to sign lower than union scale Project Labor Agreements with developers like Sam Chang.

To date, despite best efforts on the union's part, that really hasn't worked.

We'll take a look at why that hasn't succeeded, and explore some ideas that might work.

Before we go there,  let's take a look at how we got in this fix to begin with.


From 1903 to 1978, virtually all construction in New York City was done by union labor.

From the smallest apartment house to the biggest office building to the network of subway lines, highways and railroads that transport the city's millions of residents and workers, if it was built here in that era unionized tradesmen did the building.

The New York building trades unions achieved 100% market share through a half century of struggle, leading class battles that helped build the American labor movement and achieve the 8 hour day.

However, once the construction unions achieved that power, the leaders of those unions abandoned the half century of socialist-oriented labor militancy that had built the unions, and entered into a one sided alliance with the contractors.

This isolated the building trades from the rest of labor and the working class - in particular, the Black, Latino and Chinese sections of the class, who the unions helped the contractors systematically exclude from employment in almost every craft in the industry (only the lowest paid laborer jobs were open to tradesmen of color).

That alliance also led to the construction unions being junior partners of the gangsters who used extortion, bribes and the threat of arson and violence to bring market stability to the construction industry.

For a long time, it was hard to see how the cancer of labor racketeering and union-sanctioned race discrimination weakened the unions.

The New York building trades, the most powerful local unions on the face of the planet, controlled all the work and the workers who were allowed to join the unions had higher than average wages.  

The most privileged of those workers, the company men (full time employees and foremen for the contractors) had a very high standard of living. They were also the social base of the pro contractor, pro gangster leaderships of the building trades unions, and their conservatism became the dominant ideology of that entire sector of the labor movement.

The building trades were so strong that, even in the depths of the Great Depression in 1936, with half their members out of work, they were able to win the 7 hour day (a gain that NYC construction unions still hang on to up to this very day). After WW II, the NYC trades were among the first unions to win employer paid pensions and health insurance as well.

Civil rights protesters challenged this labor/management/organized crime alliance in the 1960s.

In the face of militant and often armed protests by unemployed Black and Latino workers, organized into protest groups collectively known as "the Coalition", the building trades were forced to make some concessions, particularly on minority hiring on city funded jobs in Black or Latino neighborhoods

Then, in  1971, a change in City of New York rent regulations set off an avalanche that would eventually change construction labor relations in this city forever.

Mayor John Lindsay repealed the 1947 Rent Control Law, which had made apartment rents affordable for working class New York City tenants for the previous quarter century. The part of the law that was most devastating was the clause that preserved rents for tenants who stayed in their apartments, but let landlords jack up the rent if they could get the tenants to leave.

This touched off a wave of landlord intimidation of tenants to force them to leave. Some landlords took things a step further and burned down their buildings, often with the tenants still in them, for the insurance.

It didn't help matters that the Lindsay Administration had launched a subsidy program to give public funds to landlords who converted their buildings from affordable housing to luxury rentals or co-ops.

Worse yet, the City borrowed the $ 784 million in the program from the Wall Street banks short term at high interest and lent it out to the developers long term at low interest.

The combined effect of these pro landlord anti tenant policies touched off a major crisis.

Over 200,000 New Yorkers, mostly working class and largely Black or Latino, were driven out of their homes by the fires. Tens of thousands more were displaced by the conversion of affordable rentals to luxury housing. The City also went bankrupt in June 1975 when the $ 784 million in loans came due. The City didn't have the money, so Lazard Frères and the other banks in the consortium that had lent the money took the City into receivership.

While all this was happening, the building trades unions, as well as the rest of the labor movement, didn't have even one word of criticism for these attacks on NYC's working class.

For the building trades, the bottom line was the buildings that were being renovated from affordable to luxury with those City funds were being built union and that was all that mattered, no matter how bad it hurt the rest of the city's working class.

Even when the Municipal Assistance Corporation, the banker's junta that took over the City of New York's finances in 1975, began attacking municipal workers unions the building trades, like the rest of NYC's labor movement, stood idly by and let it happen with no organized resistance.

Soon, the building trades would face the wrath of the bankers and the city government they'd installed.

In 1978, the newly elected administration of Mayor Ed Koch began rebuilding the apartment houses that the landlords had torched earlier in the decade. The Koch administration, under pressure from the banker's junta, looked to cut corners in these housing renovation jobs by figuring out a legal way to pay less than prevailing wages for the construction workers on these jobs.

Koch's newly created NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development found a loophole by laundering city, state and federal housing construction funds through not for profit community based organizations. This made the money, on paper, private funds, so the legal requirement that prevailing wages be paid to workers on these jobs could be ignored.

Now all they had to do was find contractors who would pay their construction workers substandard wages.
Since virtually every contractor in the city in the late 1970s was unionized and bound by contract to pay union scale wages, this would seem to be a difficult task.

Actually, it was surprisingly easy, considering the organized crime ties of many of those bosses.

The most organized crime tied of the contractors was one Vincent Di Napoli, the owner of the largest unionized carpentry contractor in the city, Inner City Drywall, the president of the Metropolitan New York Drywall Association and a captain in the Genovese crime family, the city's largest cosa nostra family.

Di Napoli negotiated an agreement with the NYC District Council of Carpenters calling for lower pay scales on renovation jobs. When another, smaller, construction union, Drywall Tapers local 1977 of the Painters Union, refused to go along and went on strike, he and fellow Genovese family captain Louis Moscatiello got the Carpenters and the other construction unions to scab on the strike and got the Plasterers Union to charter a scab drywall tapers local to provide scab tapers to break the strike.

Di Napoli also illegally hired union carpenters at less than union scale, a practice that came to be known as "lumping" and was soon copied by other union contractors, particularly in residential renovation work.

Since the Carpenters and the other building trades unions in residential (Mason Tenders, Bricklayers, Plasterers) were dominated by the Genovese family, there was no resistance to Di Napoli's attacks on the unions. The Painters were dominated by another cosa nostra family, the Lucchese family (that's one of the reasons they had resisted Di Napoli's wage cuts with the tapers strike) but they had been very weakened by the loss of that strike and weren't in a position to stop the Genovese attacks on residential construction worker living standards.

The weakening of union standards by cosa nostra-linked union contractors encouraged other businesspeople to set up outright non union construction companies. They soon began to start bidding on HPD housing renovation jobs, with their lower wage scales enabling them to outbid competitors from the unionized segment of the industry (even the ones that hired lumpers).

These new scab contractors had no problem hiring labor - thanks to the racially exclusionary policies of the unions, there was a large pool of non union Black and Latino workers who could be recruited through the Coalitions to man these jobs. There was also a large pool of unemployed union members available to work these jobs as well, due to the fact that the entire industry had been hit by a major recession in 1975 and all the unions had lots of members on the bench.

The Carpenters, Mason Tenders, Bricklayers, Plasterers and the Painters weren't able to resist the deunionization of this sector either, also due to how weakened they were by decades of gangster domination.

The federal government had taken some interest in the activities of the Genoveses. This wasn't because of the gangsters attacks on construction workers incomes, but because many of them had committed fraud against the real estate developers and bankers by paying scab wages but charging their clients as if they had paid union.

Ripping off tradespeople had gone unpunished, but stealing from the rich attracted major heat from law enforcement and touched off what would be the first of many criminal probes into racketeering in the NYC construction industry.

By the mid 1980s, about a quarter of the industry had been deunionized. Building Trades union membership had declined by 40%, from 250,000 to 150,000 and non union workers had gone from almost negligible to over 50,000 tradespeople.

This membership loss wasn't distributed evenly; residential construction workers were more heavily represented in the deunionized workforce than their commercial construction counterparts.

Most commercial construction stayed union, except for renovation jobs on retail stores in Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, interior demolition work in office buildings, asbestos and lead abatement and much of the sidewalk bridge scaffold industry.

The Carpenters took the biggest loss, declining from 40,000 members to 25,000, with the Bricklayers and Mason Tenders also suffering membership losses. The Electricians and the mechanical trades, by contrast, were almost untouched and retained their pre crisis membership levels.

There was a separate and even more drastic decline of construction union membership nationally. An association of CEOs of banks and manufacturing companies, the Business Roundtable, had launched a nationwide attack on the construction unions, centered in the South, the Rocky Mountain States and the rural and suburban areas of the Northeast, Midwest and the Far West. By the 1980s, they had cut construction union density nationally from over 80% of the market to under 30%.

Ironically enough, as sharply as union membership had declined in NYC, the city was still one of the citadels of unionized construction nationally.

This, along with the cosa nostra-inspired corruption and cozy relationships with contractors, made the leaders of the New York City building trades unwilling to make the kind of changes that needed to be made to preserve union power in the NYC construction industry.

This pretty much guaranteed that the non union sector would continue its growth and that union conditions would decay in the more marginal parts of the union segment of the industry, especially the one segment of residential construction that remained union, new construction of luxury co-ops.

Soon, forces that were beyond the control of the union leadership stepped in to force change upon them.


In 1994, the two biggest construction unions in the city, the District Council of Carpenters and the Mason Tenders District Council, both were taken under federal monitorship due to decades of labor racketeering in those unions.

The federal monitorship in the Mason Tenders District Council, an affiliate of the Laborers Union that represented laborers that work for General Contractors and masonry subcontractors, was by far the most thorough cleanout of any of the construction unions.

This was because the GCs shared the desire of the government and the real estate developers to clean out racketeering from the industry. The labor foremen and company man laborers of the GCs shared their bosses worldview and, since they were the social base of the MTDC's leadership, that became the dominant ideology of the new Mason Tenders and its newly chartered flagship citywide local 79.

The process would be far more difficult in the District Council of Carpenters, because the company men and carpenter foremen who were the social base of that union's leadership were loyal to their bosses, the carpentry subcontractors, many of whom had close ties to the Genoveses and other crime families and all of whom to some degree benefited from labor racketeering.

The feds had a far weaker social base among the membership to build their drive to clean up the District Council, so the process of breaking gangster control of the union was far more lengthy and difficult than in the Mason Tenders.

The government would have similar difficulties in just about every construction union in the city besides the Mason Tenders, for basically the same sociological reasons.

One big change imposed by the government was that both the Mason Tenders and the District Council of Carpenters were ordered to set up organizing departments.

This was the first serious attempt at union organizing among New York construction workers for almost 75 years.

The Mason Tenders had the more aggressive organizing department. It introduced "scabby" the large inflatable rubber rat to its picket lines and the Mason Tenders organizers were able to re unionize the interior demolition and asbestos abatement industries.

It helped that the leadership of the Mason Tenders and their organizing staff were on the same page strategically. The leadership's day to day relationships with the GCs and with the masonry, interior demolition and asbestos abatement subs backed up the work the organizing department was doing to sign up non union contractors and organize jobs.

The Carpenters organizing department, while just as aggressive at picketing as the Mason Tenders, wasn't nearly as successful at organizing. They targeted the sidewalk bridge scaffold industry and apartment building renovation contractors in Harlem, but made little headway and was unable to unionize those firms. They did sign up a large number of contractors who aspired to bid on work in office interior renovation and City of New York municipal construction.

This was in large part because, unlike the Mason Tenders, the leadership of the District Council of Carpenters and its locals were working at cross purposes with the work of the organizing department.

While the organizing department was targeting non union scaffolding, residential drywall and hirise concrete contractors, a portion of the leadership of the union was letting union scaffolding and residential drywall and concrete contractors violate the union contract by paying company man carpenters cash off the books. Obviously, the organizing department couldn't raise the standards on one side of the industry while business agents were undercutting those standards on the other side.

Beyond that, a huge problem with organizing residential was the fact that the wage scale had gotten so incredibly low in that sector. With skilled labor being paid $ 7 an hour and laborers and helpers being paid as little as $ 4 an hour (a wage so low it was actually illegal) and all these wages being paid off the books with no taxes withheld or benefits paid, any union scale, no matter how much lower than commercial wages, could compete.

The organizing departments of the Mason Tenders and the Carpenters did try and lobby the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development to enforce prevailing wages (or at the very least the minimum wage) on their jobsites but with no luck.

They were able to get the other major city entity doing housing construction, the NYC Housing Authority, to unionize its jobs, which at that point had become almost entirely scab, which was a major victory in the residential sector.

However, since so much of the city's residential construction was HPD funded, their continued use of scab contractors was a huge and growing problem.

It didn't help matters that, on many union jobs in the privately funded luxury residential sector, a number of union hirise concrete and drywall and ceilings contractors were illegally paying less than union scale to company man carpenters in return for steady work.

While the wages these outfits were illegally paying (typically in the $ 25/hr range) weren't anywhere near as low as what the worst of the scab outfits were paying, they contributed to a general decay of industry standards and created an opening for openly non union contractors to break into the luxury residential new construction sector.

By the beginning of the 200s, unionization in the NYC construction industry had fallen to 50%. Of the 100,000 non union workers, 50,000 were paid in cash off the books, with no social security, workers comp, unemployment insurance or disability taxes withheld.

Some of these workers made as little as $ 4 an hour - a pay scale so low that some scab contractors actually brought lunch for their workers, because they didn't make enough to buy their own.

These sweatshop conditions were the worst in residential construction, were even on the union side off the books work was rampant, particularly among drywall and hirise concrete subcontractors.

It got even worse when the District Council of Carpenters let contractors impose the Request System.
This allowed contractors to run their jobs with crews almost entirely composed of company men (all but the shop steward) unlike the previous system where they had to hire 50% of the crew from the union out of work list.

This created a "let's make a deal" atmosphere in certain parts of the industry - drywall and concrete on the residential side, office furniture and venetian blind installation in office interior work and in all sectors of the scaffold installation industry.

Some of the worst offenders among these contractors had ties with the Genovese, Gambino and Di Cavalcante families of cosa nostra. The corruption went all the way to the top - James Murray, the owner of On Par Construction, one of the city's biggest union drywall contractors, was deep in the mix, as was Joseph Olivieri, the head of the Association of Wall, Ceiling and Carpentry Industries, the union drywall contractors trade association.

The Genovese family captain who controlled Plasterers local 530, the drywall tapers union, convicted racketeer Louis Moscatiello, Sr, was also in the mix, using his son, contractor Louis Jr and his faceman Carmine Mingoia, who served as the puppet president of the union that Louis Sr ran from behind the scenes, to further his racketeering conspiracy.

These criminals had played a major role in helping scab and "double breasted" (part union, part scab) contractors break into the luxury residential new construction sector, a major defeat for the New York trades.

Along the way, they ripped off a lot of real estate developers, banks and GCs by charging union prices for non union labor.

That's what attracted law enforcement attention to their activities (ripping off construction workers is one thing - cheating rich people is a whole different ballgame!)

This triggered several new rounds of federal investigations across the trades (even the squeaky clean Electricians local 3 got probed). The dirtiest union in the city, the Genovese family controlled tapers union Plasterers local 530, was actually removed from the industry and its jurisdiction turned over to Painters local 1974. There was a new round of indictments in the Carpenters Union, ultimately leading to the removal and incarceration of the head of the District Council, Mike Forde. Also, the Request System that had helped some of the dirtier union contractors pay substandard wages on union jobs was dismantled by court order.

Even with the arrests and the government interventions in the unions, the damage was done.

The damage was even greater since the city was in a luxury real estate boom at the time that union standards were being undermined.

Lots of new construction and renovation jobs were popping up all over the Westside, the Lower East Side, Harlem, Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Coney Island, the South Shore of Staten Island, Long Island City, Flushing, Corona and Elmhurst and much of that work was done scab.

Some of the scab developers had gotten really big - Sam Chang (who we met earlier in this article), Dave Walentas and Shaya Boymelgreen - and scab General Contractors like Flintlock (who we were introduced to at the top of this piece), Artimus and Forkosh expanded their operations to do bigger and bigger jobs with all scab labor.

This wave of low wage scab work did motivate some construction unions to follow the path of the Carpenters and the Mason Tenders and start getting serious about organizing.

Painters District Council 9 and Ironworkers local 361 began putting out scabby the rat and throwing up picket lines across the city too.

Electricians local 3 began trying to negotiate market recovery agreements, to get scab contractors to agree to go union but at a lower pay scale - which had been the negotiating strategy that the Mason Tenders and Carpenters had been using for the previous decade.

That strategy - along with the picketlines - did get some results. Artimus Construction agreed to go from being all scab to being "double breasted" (part union  part scab). They agreed to use unionized electrical and concrete contractors on some of their hirises, with scab contractors continuing to do the masonry, drywall, woodwork, windows, flooring and plumbing work. In return, the union subs were allowed to pay lower wage rates and to use a higher proportion of lower paid apprentices than would normally be permitted.

Shaya Boymelgreen agreed to do one of his bigger jobs - the renovation at 25 Wall Street - with union labor, in return for a 20% lower pay scale for all trades. Sam Chang made similar deals to build some of his hotels union at a reduced pay scale.

This gave the leaders of the Building and Construction Trades Council the idea to offer reduced pay scales to ALL residential and hotel developers.

That idea was incredibly unpopular among the city's 100,000 union tradespeople. The only trade that had the opportunity to vote on those concessions, the Electricians, voted it down (they were forced to vote on the deal again and were compelled to accept it - a practice known in labor circles as "vote til you get it right").

However, before any potential gains in unionization could be achieved from these givebacks, the bottom fell out of the market.

The real estate bubble melted down in the summer of 2007, causing a nationwide financial crisis.

Real estate and construction were hard hit sectors, with many luxury apartment house jobs abandoned in mid build by their developers all over the city.

Five years later, many of these buildings still sit abandoned and empty.


The meltdown generated massive unemployment among construction workers, union and non union.  

At the lowest point, roughly 40% of the industry's workforce was out of work at any given time and even now, joblessness hovers at roughly a third of the NYC construction workforce.
This emboldened real estate developers and General Contractors in the union sector to demand a 20% wage cut and work rule concessions from their workers in the 2011 round of contract negotiations, with the proceeds of the reduction to be passed along up the food chain to the developers and GCs in the form of price cuts by the unionized subcontractors.

The Building Trades Employers Association, which represents the interests of the developers and the GCs, threatened to repeal the New York Plan, the agreement they'd had with the NYC Building and Construction Trades Council since 1903 to only use union subcontractors on their jobs.

Unlike the Sam Chang, Artimus and Boymelgreen concessions, which, whatever their faults, actually got previously scab work turned union, these concessions would only affect jobs that were already union and wouldn't turn around a single scab job or organize a single non union tradesperson.

Considering the high unemployment in the unions, new organizing had been basically abandoned, because how could the unions expand their membership with thousands of current members on the bench jobless? So any wage reduction on union jobs would simply be a race to the bottom with the scab contractors, rather than a new organizing technique.

The NYC Building and Construction Trades Council and most of its affiliates were prepared to make these givebacks, on top of a package of Market Recovery wage concessions they'd already given up two years before. The only holdouts were the Operating Engineers, who refused to reduce the pay or benefits of their most highly skilled and well paid members, the hirise tower crane operators.

 The members had a very different view of the concessions.

Opposition to the 20% pay cut was immediate and widespread among the local men (tradespeople who worked out of the union hiring halls).

What little support their was for the pay concessions was confined to foremen and company men - the minority of union members who are full time employees of contractors.

The BTEA attempted to carry out a media campaign to threaten union tradespeople that if they didn't take the pay cut the developers and GCs would replace them with non union workers.

The subway ads, stories planted in newspapers and a 26 point ultimatum didn't work - despite the high unemployment rate in the unions, workers still refused to support the pay cuts, even with the media blitz.

The union subcontractors also quietly opposed BTEA's 20% pay cut, for their own reasons. If they had been allowed to keep the proceeds of the wage cut (the way they'd been able to profit from the illegal lumping practices they'd carried out back in the day when the Genovese family ran the industry) they would have been all for it.

However, having to pass along the pay cuts to the GCs and the clients didn't help their bottom line, plus lower wages would make it harder to retain quality workers in the industry's labor force.

Painters District Council # 9's contract expired first (on May Day, 2011 - their contract expiration date is a relic of the union's Communist leadership during the 1930s and 40s) and, despite the widespread opposition among union painters to the BTEA's giveback demands, the union rolled over and gave in on just about every demand.

The biggest concession involved reducing the pay scale on outer borough residential painting jobs from $ 36/hr to an incredibly low $ 13.25/hr! Basically, they reduced the union pay scale on those jobsites to non union levels.

Even on the jobs where the painters kept their union scale, there were major givebacks on work rules, including the gutting of the union's hiring hall system, granting contractors the right to fire union shop stewards and a "three strikes and you're out" blacklist system that would allow the employers to get a union painter kicked out of the union if he/she had been fired three times in his/her career.

In the wake of DC # 9's rollover for the Association of Master Painters, the Window and Plate Glass Dealers Association and the Association of Wall Ceiling and Carpentry Industries, BTEA had pressured subs in other industries to demand similar concessions.

They thought it would be easy, but resistance was already starting to bubble up from the jobsites.

A group of dissident union carpenters (including this writer) organized a "no 20% pay cut" rally at the BTEA's annual banquet just a couple of weeks after the concession-ridden Painters DC # 9 contract was signed.

Although it was small (only about 250 workers - mostly members of the Painters Union) the rally was a sign of greater resistance yet to come.

Despite that warning sign, Wall Ceiling, the Building Contractors Association, the Greater New York Floorcoverers Association, the Cement League and the Hoisting and Scaffolding Trade Association demanded major givebacks from the District Council of Carpenters.

On top of the wage and benefit concessions on residential and hotel jobs, they also wanted to bring back the Request System (under a new name, "Full Mobility") which would allow them to run jobs with all company man crews except for the shop steward. This would almost certainly bring back the practice of contractors in the more marginal and competitive market segments (residential drywall, residential hirise concrete, furniture installation, venetian blind installation and scaffolding) making company men work for cash in return for steady employment.

The Cement League and the General Contractors Association also demanded a similar package of deep wage and benefit cuts and work rule givebacks from the lowest paid and hardest working trade in the industry, the concrete laborers represented by the Laborers Union's Cement Workers District Council.

That union should have been a pushover and given in as easily as Painters DC # 9.

Unlike the CWDC's reformed and far more militant counterpart in the Laborers Union, the Mason Tenders District Council, the Cement Workers was a union with an unreformed leadership which still had a reputation of having ties to the Genovese family and other cosa nostra groups.

However, between the anger of their members at these concessions and the ever present threat of federal prosecution for labor racketeering hovering over their heads, the CWDC leadership had no choice but to stand up and fight back.

They organized wildcat strikes at the two biggest concrete jobs in the city.

One was an ordinary hirise hotel and residential construction job, the Carnegie 57 tower on W 57th St and 6th Avenue.

The other was a far more high profile job - the new World Trade Center site.

Crain's New York Business, the city's main trade publication for the business community, predicted that there was no way that the CWDC leadership would ever dare to shut down such a high profile site so associated with the 9/11 terrorist attacks - that would be unpatriotic!

Crain's predicted wrong.

The Cement Workers shut the job down, informally, through an unsanctioned wildcat strike that also shut down Carnegie 57. The unofficial picket line was respected by the District Council of Carpenters, Lathers local 46, Operating Engineers locals 14 and 15 and Cement Masons local 780 - all the concrete trades were united and on the street.

Four hundred of the Cement Workers 2,000 members walked out at the WTC and Carnegie 57 and another 1,600 carpenters, lathers, operating engineers and masons respected their lines and refused to work.

The numbers may have been small relative to the 100,000 union tradespeople in the city, but the significance of the strike far outweighed the number of man days directly lost.

This kind of thing is rare in the NYC Building and Construction Trades. The last major craft strike here was the Plumbers strike in 1968 (a racist strike against allowing Blacks and Puerto Ricans to join that union) and the last industrywide all trades strike was almost a century ago, on May Day 1916!

Between the cement workers strike, the refusal of the Operating Engineers and the Electricians to take the 20% pay cut and the reluctance of the subcontractors to go to war with the unions over a wage cut that wasn't even going to go into their pockets, the BTEA's 20% pay cut and the 26 point ultimatum stalled.

In spring 2012, the newly elected reform leadership in the District Council of Carpenters brought the concessionary contracts to a membership vote (the first time the District Council's membership had been allowed to vote on a contract since 1916).

The scaffold carpenters - most of whom are company men -narrowly approved the deal and the rest of the membership rejected it by a two-to-one margin.

For all intents and purposes, the 20% giveback deal and the gutting of the union job referral system was dead in the water - at least for the moment


That doesn't mean that New York City's 200,000 construction workers are out of the woods yet.

Far from it.

Roughly a third of the 100,000 union tradespeople are still out of work. Many have been on the bench for months - long enough for their unemployment to be close to running out.

On the non union side, unemployment rates are just as high - an even bigger hardship, since roughly 50% of the 100,000 on the scab side of the industry worked off the books for employers that do not pay unemployment insurance premiums, so they get no benefits at all when their out of work.

Also, despite the rally at the BTEA dinner and the World Trade Center strike, by and large there was very little organized resistance by the unions to the pay cut.

On the contrary, the leadership of the Building and Construction Trades Council initially SUPPORTED the 20% pay cut. The Painters Union actually imposed it on their members in the outer boroughs residential sector, and Lathers local 46 and Plumbers local 1 are trying to impose it on their members in those market segments now.

Also, as long as half the industry is non union making low wages off the books, union wages and benefits will always be in jeopardy.

To survive, the building trades unions have to get serious about organizing. Yes, that's easier said than done at a time when a third of the labor force in this business are out of work. However, if we don't organize now, we'll only have a larger, stronger and more robust scab sector to deal with when the industry recovers.

We need to have a strategic approach to organizing - going after one contractor at a time just isn't going to do it. We need to organize the entire residential sector on a citywide basis. Contractors and developers are more likely to agree to unionization and the massive labor cost increases that come with it if all of their competitors have to deal with those increased costs and reduced profits at the same time.

We also need allies - and no, the developers and the contractors are NOT our friends!

We need to reach out to other sections of the organized labor movement , first and foremost the janitors in the Service Employees International Union and the hotel workers in the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union and the delivery drivers and movers in the Teamsters union.

They work for the businesspeople who hire our employers, so we have common enemies.

We also need to unite with the tenants rights movement - their landlords are our boss' clients, and the same way they try to cut our pay, they try and gouge their rents.

We also should be joining hands with the Occupy Movement - we are part of the 99 Percent that they are fighting for and they oppose the bankers and billionaires who drive union busting and wage cuts in our industry.

Some local unions in the New York Building Trades - asbestos and lead abatement workers union Laborers local 78 and commercial movers and art handlers union Teamsters local 814 - have already joined forces with Occupy and the rest of the trades should follow their lead.

Our only alternative is a continued race to the bottom.

-   commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER, LOCAL 157 CARPENTER
               Originally published on Thursday, May 24, 2012
               © 2012 Gregory A. Butler, all rights reserved.