Militant Journalism

New York construction workers press rights for non-union workers

Liberation News photo: Paul Wilcox
Liberation News photo: Paul Wilcox

About 30,000 from the building and construction trades packed the area inside and outside City Hall January 31 in New York City, demanding that the City Council pass legislation requiring all apprentice workers to have adequate health and safety training. The multinational outpouring of African-American, Latino and white workers observed a moment of silence for those killed on construction sites: 31 killed in the past two years; 90 percent at non-union sites.

“We can no longer tolerate irresponsible developers and contractors who are putting profits over the safety of workers,” stated Gary La Barbera, president of the 100,000 member Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which organized the protest.

While union construction workers must pass effective training and safety programs, developers are increasingly using non-union workers, paying far lower wages and benefits, with minimal safety training. The unions are pressing the City to enact legislation (Intro 1447) to require all construction workers to undergo an approved apprenticeship that includes health and safety training, whether or not they are union members.

Construction work is the most deadly industry in New York

In addition to the fatalities, there were 598 injuries requiring off-site medical attention in 2016. However, construction worker fatalities or injuries rarely make the news, and hardly ever the front page.

Mayor de Blasio’s administration, in typical fashion, has given half-hearted support to the very weakest measures in the proposed
legislation, while opposing Intro 1447. The mayor opposes the bill’s requirement for an approved apprenticeship for new construction workers, using the “burden” on minority and women-owned firms as an excuse. However Carlos Mendoza, union member and protestor, explained: “Bill de Blasio is using coded language when he refers to his concerns about “minority companies.” This is a distraction from the fact that there are wealthy contractors trying to exploit their workers by not paying livable wages, benefits or providing crucial safety training that can save lives.”

New York City is in the midst of a major construction boom, with new residential buildings going up in every borough. However, this boom is in mostly in luxury housing despite a desperate need for affordable housing that affects all working class New Yorkers.

It was inspiring to see the construction unions standing up for the rights of non-members. Non-union contractors are only too happy to use migrant and undocumented labor and profit from their vulnerability, cheating workers out of the wages, benefits and safety standards union members have. This hurts the jobs and wages of all construction workers. Nonunion wages are about $15-20 an hour with no benefits for very hard and demanding work, far less than union workers.

Donald Trump claims to be “pro-worker” but when he uses racist language to repress the rights of immigrant workers, he is solidly on the side of the developers “right” to exploit the undocumented and undercut unions. He is of course a billionaire developer himself in NYC and elsewhere. The only solution is for the union to fight for the rights of all construction workers. Showing solidarity with non-union workers strengthens the entire labor movement – and yesterday’s rally was an important step.

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