SCUMBAG TIME the new class war between New York City’s billionaire real estate developers and middle income construction workers 1. The one-sided class war: This year’s long Independence Day weekend may be marked by a major labor battle in New York City’s construction industry, possibly the biggest labor dispute in the trades since 1921. On one side we have the NYC Building and Construction Trades Council and its affiliates representing Carpenters, Concrete Laborers, Mason Tenders, Bricklayers, Roofers, Cement Masons, Plumbers, Steamfitters, Operating Engineers and Teamsters and the 66,000 workers they represent. That’s a pretty big chunk of our industry - two thirds of the city’s 100,000 union building trades workers and one sixth of the industry’s overall 200,000 person labor force. They are facing off against the Building Trades Employers Association, its bellicose spokesman Louis Coletti, 11 employers trade associations and their 716 affiliated companies, one half of the city’s 1,500 unionized construction contractors. Some of the most powerful forces in the city are pushing those 716 bosses into battle here. Their anti labor offensive is being backed by Steven Spinola and the Real Estate Board of New York, representing the real estate developers those contractors build for. Alongside of REBNY’s efforts, billionaire developers Stephen Ross and Bruce Ratner have been pushing the hardest for union givebacks. The Building Trades expended enormous effort and alienated a lot of potential allies by fighting to get Ratner’s massively state subsidized Atlantic Yards development into production (against the will of the people of the surrounding Prospect Heights, Brooklyn neighborhood). Despite all those sacrifices on his behalf, he’s asked for site specific pay cuts and givebacks for that job on top of the citywide givebacks. Ratner also is looking across the street at scab developers like Shaya Boymelgreen and David and Jed Walentas, who’ve made their fortunes using minimum wage labor to build their luxury apartment buildings. Ross is also is on both sides of the industry; Related Companies builds union below 96th St, Apollo Realty builds scab in Harlem. When he built out his own personal 4 story $ 40 million penthouse atop Time Warner Center, he tried to use non union labor too (and only stopped when he was faced with a one day walkout of all the union trades on that site). They’re backed by the other billionaires who own New York’s skyline, guys like Larry Silverstein, Mort Zuckerman, Donald Trump, Stephen Green and Bernard Spitzer. They also look to the rise of sweatshop billionaires like Boymelgreen and the Walentas brothers in Brooklyn and Ken Haron and Eytan Benyamin in Harlem, and they dream of building million dollar apartments with $ 8/hr labor like those guys do. This handful of plutocrats have the most to gain here. They are the guys who’d pocket the bulk of the superprofits extracted by these givebacks by using the wage cuts as an excuse to demand lower construction prices from the contractors who build their buildings. Basically, this 20% pay cut would involve 67,000 middle income workers handing about $ 6.7 billion per year (or $10,000/yr per person) over to two dozen billionaires. Never have so many been forced to give so much to so few. The attacks on the trades are also backed by the city’s Wall Street elite, firms like the Bank of New York Mellon Corp, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Capital One and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. These are the financiers whose lines of credit, construction loans and mortgages pay for the buildings owned by the billionaires. Since financing costs absorb about 50% of construction spending, these are the folks who take up most of the profits of construction. Naturally, they want construction workers wages reduced to the minimum. That’s why they want the 20% pay cut for union labor and that’s also why they’re opposed to efforts by the BCTC to lobby the state legislature to pass the Espaillat-Lopez Bill and extend Davis Bacon prevailing wage laws to cover non union workers on publicly funded affordable housing jobs. The city’s powerful not for profit sector, who have been deeply involved in unionbusting and sweatshop labor practices in publicly subsidized affordable housing construction in the city for the past 30 years, are also gunning for the construction unions. The Rockefeller family’s Regional Plan Association is leading the charge here, having forged an unlikely alliance with the arch reactionary Manhattan Institute to generate scholarly anti union propaganda for the bosses. They aren’t the only ones – the New York State Association for Affordable Housing and the Citizens Housing and Planning Council have also been attacking the unions, specifically for their support for higher wages for non union tradespeople. Those officially sanctioned anti union lies are being regurgitated by the print media, including the Times, the Post, the Daily News, the Observer, Crain’s and the Wall Street Journal, who’ve been writing anti construction union screeds in their papers for the past 6 months. The anti union war drums have been beaten the hardest by the Post (the flagship newspaper of fanatically right wing Fox News) and the Daily News (which happens to be owned by real estate billionaire Mort Zuckerman). As the June 30 contract expiration date gets closer, the government of the City of New York has also weighed in on the side of the bosses. The New York Police Department, the Department of Buildings and the Office of Emergency Management are already planning a campaign of repression against militant strikers on the picketlines – and leaking scare stories about “sabotage” to the press to justify the police abuse in advance. Meanwhile, REBNY and the real estate developers have made serious plans to bring in scab crane operators and to get temporary New York crane operator licenses for them from the Department of Buildings It seems like the bosses have rolled out the heavy artillery – who are they preparing to bombard with all these big guns? The official propaganda version is that they are attacking “inefficient” union work rules, which, according to the Regional Plan Association propaganda articles churned out by far right wing Manhattan Institute ideologues Julia Vitullo-Martin and Hope Cohen, supposedly are the only reason that building union costs more than building scab. There is much griping and whining from the bosses about workers taking too long to get a cup of coffee and the fact that a few very large megaprojects in the city have full time Operating Engineer and Teamster shop stewards (“master mechanics” and “working teamster foremen” respectively) who, as is common in many large unionized workplaces in many industries, are paid by the employer to handle union business on the jobsites full time. Beyond the lies they print in the Daily News and the Post, the reality is a lot different. The reason for the cost differential between union and non union construction workers boils down to one thing and one thing only – WAGES. New York’s unionized trades make between $ 40 and $ 50 an hour in wages for journeylevel workers and on top of that wage there is another $ 30 to $ 40 an hour in contributions to the union benefit funds that provide these workers with health insurance and pensions. This sounds like a lot of money until you realize just how much value these workers add to the buildings they work on. This is a city of $ 100 a square foot buildings erected atop billion dollar an acre land – there’s a lot of money on these projects and, even at $ 50/hr, only ten cents of every dollar spent on construction in this city goes to wages. By contrast, the city’s non union construction workers make between $ 8 and $ 20 an hour, do not get any sort of employer benefits and about 50,000 of them, half the non union sector and a quarter of the total construction workforce, work off the books and don’t even get statutorily mandated social security and unemployment benefits. Considering the value of the buildings those $ 8/hr tradespeople are working on, a whole lot of money is being funneled away from the folks who construct the buildings and being pocketed by the rich folks who own them. As I mentioned above, many residential developers have a foot in both worlds – using $ 8/hr off the books scab labor on their publicly funded affordable housing jobs and $ 50/hr on the books union labor on their privately funded housing jobs. It’s obvious why they’d want to reduce the $ 50/hr workforce down to $ 8/hr sweatshop levels! It’s equally obvious why they would NOT want to admit that to the general public! The 20% pay cut that the BTEA is making its primary demand in these contract talks is mute testimony to the fact that, despite all the propaganda about “inefficient” work rules, this really is all about the money. Admittedly, there are some workrules that are at issue, specifically, the ones that pertain to construction workers having certain basic decent working conditions on the jobsites. Union General Contractors are required to provide bathroom facilities on their larger jobs. If the job is big enough, they have to have a separate bathroom for the women workers and once the concrete and steel work are done and the building is sealed, these have to be actual flush toilet bathrooms. GCs also have to provide temporary electric power and light to the jobsites so workers will be able to plug in their power tools and have light to see by while they work. GCs are also required to provide at least a basic level of heat on the jobsites during the dead of winter (although to be brutally honest, that’s more about keeping the concrete warm while it sets than it is about the comfort of the workers). GCs also have to provide elevator service for workers on hirise jobs, because a worker who just had to climb 20 stories with a 40 pound bag of tools isn’t going to be that efficient of a worker when they get to the floor they’re working on. GCs have to pay the electrical subcontractor to have two electricians on each major job keep an eye on the temporary electrical system while also doing their regular jobs. They have to make similar arrangements to pay the heating ventilation and air conditioning subcontractor to have two steamfitters periodically check in on the temporary heating system. They also have to pay the plumbing contractor to have two plumbers build the temporary bathrooms and perform repair work on them as needed. The temporary elevators are staffed by full time operators on the GCs payroll, with elevator constructors running the temporary passenger elevators and operating engineers running the freight cars. This may all seem like basic stuff to those who don’t work in construction, but in this medieval industry, there actually are quite a few GCs who deeply resent having to provide basic human creature comforts to their workers! Up until women began working in construction in the late 1970s, it was quite common to see jobsites with no toilets for the workers at all! On rough jobs male workers were expected to urinate against the wall, on finish work, they were expected to use an empty joint compound bucket as a toilet. In the Bronx, where this writer began his career in the trades, as late as the mid 1990s there were still jobsites in that borough with no toilet facilities for the workers. One of the BTEA’s demands is the elimination of the temporary services requirement and to have temporary toilets, lights, heat and elevator service to be solely at the whim of the GC. They also want to have mason tenders, the unskilled laborers who sweep up after the other trades, also be in charge of maintaining those temporary facilities where they continue to exist. Mason tenders also happen to be the lowest paid trade in the entire unionized construction industry, conveniently enough. The BTEA also want the right to bring scab subcontractors onto union jobs and to force union workers to work side by side with non union labor. This practice, known as “double breasting” or “the open shop” has been prohibited on union jobs here since 1921 and it’s an outrageous demand by the contractors. The BTEA and the developers also want the unlimited right to use factory build modular components for the buildings we put up, including modular segments built in non union factories. The reason for this is simple. Workers in unionized modular factories only make $ 28/hr – their non union counterparts make as little as the federal minimum wage, $ 8.25/hr. The BTEA have a laundry list of other demands (they sent a 26 point ultimatum to the BCTC back in January detailing them). They want; an end to the 7 hour workday that the trades won back in 1936, the reduction of how much they have to pay for overtime, mandatory drug tests, Saturday as a straight time day, a so called “code of conduct” and a bunch of other petty demands down to and including they don’t even want to give us time to wash our hands before lunch. It’s actually amazing that the real estate interests and the General Contractors think they can get away with this kind of massive attack. They haven’t tried to pull a stunt like this in 90 years. There only doing it now because they think they can get away with it. The problem is, they might be right. 2. How to be for labor when it’s flat on its back: The NYC Building and Construction Trades Council and its 16 affiliated unions have responded to the present economic crisis with remarkable passivity and inertia. For the past 3 years, they have passively followed the lead of the BTEA and REBNY, letting them set the agenda (in the name of “the industry”) on every question, especially wages, work rules and job safety. The BCTC takes for granted the BTEA and REBNY’s idea that unionized construction workers have to have a reduced standard of living and worsened working conditions to “compete with the non union”. The very fact that the BCTC are dead silent about the fact that most of the city’s developers are themselves users of scab contractors on many of their jobs, and are thus on both sides of the so called “competition” is illustrative of just how servile New York’s construction union leaders are to the contractors and developers. The narrow selfish demands of 1,500 contractors and a few dozen developers are always presented as “the needs of the industry” and as more important than the needs of the construction workforce. The need of unionized construction workers to protect our wages and working conditions and the urgent need of the non union workers to have an end to sweatshop wages and to actually be paid on the books are NEVER presented as “the needs of the industry” even though they affect 200,000 workers and their families. When the bottom dropped out of the construction market after the 2007 meltdown, inflicting mass unemployment on every trade, the real estate developers and their allies in government decided to go on the offensive. The unions, not ideologically inclined to ever take an independent position from the bosses even in the best of times, were utterly unprepared to fight back and began making a series of concessions. In 2008, the Building Trades agreed to major concessions in a Project Labor Agreement covering jobs for the New York City School Construction Authority. Among other concessions, the SCA got the right to use scab contractors on union jobsites (as long as the scab shops hired union foremen to supervise their non union workers). Artimus Construction, the largest scab GC in Harlem, also won the right to use part union part scab crews on their jobs. They were allowed to use union carpenters, laborers, lathers, masons and crane operators on the concrete work, union electricians on the electrical work and non union carpenters, ironworkers, masons, plumbers and laborers on the rest of their buildings. This was followed in 2009 with another Project Labor Agreement that made wage and work rule concessions on two dozen Manhattan hirise jobs, including wages that were 20% less than the regular union scale. This was followed in 2010 with another special deal, allowing the handful of union contractors that work on NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development subsidized housing jobs to pay up to 40% less than union scale. These concessions were sold to the workers by their leaders as the answer to “save union jobs” and “get us back to work”. Even if the members didn’t believe that, (and a lot of members didn’t) the contracts were imposed on them anyway, because other than the electricians none of the New York trades allow their members to vote on contracts (and the Electricians Union’s leadership coerced its members to vote for the agreement even after they’d already rejected it). In light of those deals, it’s not surprising that BTEA and REBNY expected the construction unions to roll over for this present deal, and permanently write those supposedly temporary givebacks into their collective bargaining agreements. In fact, the BTEA and BCTC had planned to jointly rent out Madison Square Garden to announce to the members that the Building Trades unions had accepted the BTEA’s 26 point ultimatum. Then the deal fell apart, so BTEA went with their Plan B – doing an end run around the unions by using subway ads, a website and leaflets stapled to workers paychecks to sell them on these concessions. That backfired and actually succeeded in whipping up widespread resentment of the givebacks. Workers had always resented those special deals, but had tolerated them as temporary deals made to keep jobs going in the midst of the worst recession in 70 years. However, they were not prepared to accept permanent rollbacks, no matter how bad the economy was. There was also a split among the union leaders. On the one side, the leadership of the New York District Council of Carpenters, the largest construction union, was the most aggressive in pushing for concessions. They were backed by the Painters, Bricklayers, Mason Tenders, Concrete Laborers and the Plasterers & Cement Masons. Those unions have long allowed contractors to treat workers in their crafts harshly and tolerate high levels of unemployment in their crafts even in normal economic times. They tend to take the lead in making concessions with the bosses at the expense of their members. On the other side, the leadership of the Operating Engineers was most aggressive in opposing any kind of givebacks, in particular those that threatened to eliminate the jobs of the master mechanics. Master mechanics tend to be drawn from the most privileged layer of union crane operators, the social base of the leadership of that union. There was no way that the Operating Engineers union leadership could sell them out by letting the BTEA eliminate their jobs. They were backed by the Electricians, Plumbers, Steamfitters, Boilermakers, Sheet Metal Workers, Ironworkers and Lathers. Those mechanical trades unions tend to demand the contractors in their trades provide their members with a bare minimum of decent treatment on the job (decent by the low standards of the construction industry) and they also tend to fight for some degree of job security for their members (again, job security by the low standards of the construction industry). The leaders of the Operating Engineers and the mechanical trades, having a membership that expects a certain level of treatment, were not going to go along with the concession deal being pushed by the Carpenters, Painters and the masonry trades. Meanwhile, as members began to find out what was in store for them, and to read the anti union diatribes in the Post and the Daily News, resentment began to build. Painters District Council # 9’s agreement with the Association of Master Painters and the Wall Ceiling and Carpentry association was the test case for this concession campaign. This was because the Painters contract expires on May Day (the only remaining legacy of the communists who ran the union during the 1940s) two months before the other contracts. DC # 9’s leadership gave up the store in this contract. 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. 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 so called “workplace performance plan”. That “workplace performance plan” 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 Painters Union doesn’t allow its members to ratify contracts so the agreement was inflicted on them without a vote. This abominable agreement showed clearly what the BTEA wanted to impose on the rest of the union construction workforce. As word of the Painters giveback ridden agreement filtered through the other trades, anger grew and the likelihood that similar contracts could be imposed on the other crafts without a fight diminished. This created a problem for the construction union leaders. The Building Trades union leadership have for over a century held to an ideology of “labor management partnership” and have historically been reluctant to lead strikes. These leaders now found themselves in a position where they might just have to call a walkout on July 1, “partnership” be damned. Despite that onrushing reality, none of the construction unions made any effort to prepare for a strike, not even the Operating Engineers, who would probably end up having to take the lead in any such walkout. They didn’t even call any rallies, probably out of a well founded fear that they’d lose control of any such rally, just like they did during the “40,000 Man March” – the big rally in front of MTA headquarters on June 30, 1998. That rally turned into what amounted to a one day general strike (which the leadership of the BCTC publicly apologized for on live TV!) The last thing that the Building Trades leadership would want this time around would be a second edition of the 40,000 man march! As a result, absolutely no effort was made to mobilize the membership – or at least no official mobilization was carried out! A small group of activist union tradespeople (including this writer) organized an independent labor rally in front of the BTEA’s annual $ 750 a plate banquet at Cipriani’s Restaurant on Wall Street on May 24. One union, Bridge Painters local 806, actually endorsed the rally and heavily mobilized their members to attend. Their contract comes up in September and they might be forced by the Structural Steel Painting Contractors Association and its 10 affiliated firms to follow the DC 9 Association of Master Painters pattern (which would very much NOT be acceptable to their members). Local 806 mobilized about 150 of its members to attend the protest, joined by about 100 other union tradespeople. The rally came as a surprise to the BTEA, and the contractors and developers were visibly shocked when they were pelted with chants of “Asshole! Asshole! Asshole” as they entered Cipriani’s. Billionaire World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein, the guest of honor at the event, actually went over to the demonstrators and professed his love of unions and his shock that union workers would ever protest against him. For the record, Larry the allegedly labor loving billionaire happens to also be one of the folks pushing hardest for this package of givebacks. He’d gotten the unions to agree to a concession ridden Project Labor Agreement at Ground Zero way back in 2002 and now he wants to make us expand those concessions citywide. In the wake of the Cipriani’s rally against the BTEA, the Building Trades leadership finally saw fit to call an officially sanctioned labor march and rally on June 15. The rally was held at Cadman Plaza near the Brooklyn Bridge in the middle of the day, followed by a march across the Brooklyn Bridge and a second rally near City Hall. Officially, this rally was called by the NYC Central Labor Council not the BCTC, so alongside the construction workers were small contingents from the New York State Nursing Association, the United Federation of Teachers and Service Employees International Union local 32bj. The unions did little to mobilize for the rally and didn’t have workers leave their jobs at lunchtime. This kept attendance relatively light – only about 5,000 workers showed up. Be that as it may, after the workers listened to the speeches at Cadman Plaza and marched across the bridge, the CLC and BCTC organizers quickly lost control of events. The NYPD tried to pen the marchers in one lane of Broadway rather than letting them take up the whole street. Some of the Ironworkers took exception to that and occupied both the street and the sidewalk bridge in front of a construction site at that corner. The police attacked them, made one arrest, the CLC and BCTC representatives were able to take back control of the rally from the workers and then the march continued without further incident. However, in the days since the Brooklyn Bridge rally, there has been no further official effort to mobilize workers to resist the BTEA and REBNY. Negotiations have continued, behind closed doors with minimal to nonexistent updates to the membership as to the progress of the talks. From what little is known of the talks, the District Council of Carpenters is leading the way in proposing concessions, including the “full mobility” proposal which would gut the union hiring hall, and creation of a new very low wage carpenter job class: “preapprentices”. These “preapprentices” would be paid close to minimum wage and would be used to unload trucks. Unlike apprentices they wouldn’t go to school or be taught craft skills on the job, they would only be used as materials handlers. Worse yet, the Carpenters leadership is also proposing to abolish mandatory hiring from the union’s out of work list. Under the “full mobility” proposal, contractors would have the option to not hire any carpenters from the out of work list at all, as opposed to the present 50/50 rule that requires half the crew be hired from the list. Since the majority of New York union carpenters work off the out of work list, this would be a disaster for these workers. It would also create an environment where contractors would be able to pressure desperate union carpenters to work for less than union scale just to get a job. The Carpenters probably won’t take any wage cuts other than the ones they gave up in 2010, the 20% on privately funded luxury residential work and the 40% on HPD funded affordable housing work. However, there may be significant benefit cuts and other givebacks beyond the preapprentice deal, also full mobility pretty much guarantees that lots of guys and gals will be forced to work for less than union scale in return for steady employment, which amounts to a de facto pay cut. The only thing holding up approval of that and other concessions is approval by the federal judge who oversees the internal affairs of the District Council of Carpenters under a 1994 civil racketeering consent decree (like most NYC construction unions, the Carpenters have been subject to one racketeering investigation or another for the past 30 years) This approval may delay a contract settlement between the Carpenters and the Wall, Ceiling and Carpentry association until a couple of days after the July 1 deadline (the other Carpenter agreements are all patterned on the Wall, Ceiling contract) Very little of this information has been relayed to rank and file carpenters, who, as usual, are being kept in the dark on their new contracts. Reportedly, there are also settlements close at hand between the Mason Tenders and the Contractors Association of Greater New York, the Steamfitters and the Mechanical Contractors Association and the Teamsters and the Demolition Contractors Association. Of course, all those settlements were conducted behind closed doors with mason tenders, steamfitters and teamsters on the jobsites kept uninformed as to the progress of the talks. Reportedly the only holdup is the Operating Engineers agreements with CAGNY, the Building Contractors Association, the Cement League and the Demolition Contractors Association (the last association have been working without contract with the Operating Engineers since last year). As I said above, the issue here is a wholesale attack on the Operating Engineers shop steward system. Since the master mechanics (shop stewards) tend to be drawn from the core social base of the Operating Engineers union leadership, it is politically impossible for the leaders of that union to gut that system, leaving them no choice but to fight the givebacks. However, considering the high likelihood that the Operating Engineers will have to strike on July 1, no serious strike preparations have been made. That’s kind of a big deal, since the BTEA’s strategy here is to get all the other trades to scab on the Operating Engineers and leave them twisting slowly in the wind. There’s also the question of will the other trades respect their picketlines. Certainly it would be the natural instinct of the members to walk out in solidarity with the engineers, however building trades leaders have a long and pathetic tradition of ordering workers to scab on other trades. It would be a God damned shame if that happened here – if it did it might be our industry’s PATCO moment and it would be a big defeat for us and the labor movement as a whole. We’re the last strong island of private sector union strength in this country, if we fall, it will be a disaster for the entire labor movement. 3. An injury to one is the concern of all How did we get to this place? How did we get unions with such potential strength that were so submissive to the bosses? Let’s take a look. Our unions actually have quite militant origins. The earliest construction local unions emerged in New York right after the American Revolution. Worker organizing was kind of a big deal back then, since White construction workers had just been freed from indentured servitude and most Black tradesmen were still slaves. Strikes were considered slave rebellions and folks got whipped or burned at the stake for that. Still, workers persevered under difficult circumstances and kept the unions alive underground scale, until the abolition of slavery in 1863 made building trades unions viable. These early unions were very different from the building trades we know today. They were led by committees of workers on their tools who did their labor activism in their spare time. They were all radicals of various stripes – socialists, communists, anarchists – and they saw unionism as an instrument of revolutionary social change. There only real political blindspot was race; they thought that discrimination against Blacks was deplorable, but they weren’t particularly prepared to fight against it in the industry. By the 1870s they’d built up strong craft unions among carpenters and in the masonry trades and were strong enough to dictate to employers the wage scale and the length of the workday. This was done by areawide strikes (known as “trade movements”) carried out at the beginning of the building season every year. By the 1890s the building trades unions in New York had grown strong enough to win the 8 hour day for part of the workforce, to build national unions in the trades and to build up an entire organized labor movement. They also had a cadre of full time leaders – business agents – and had built the unions up as permanent institutions which the bosses grudgingly accepted as a permanent part of the industry. That acceptance came at a price. The business agents were reluctant to call strikes (because strikes put the union treasury at risk – the same treasury that paid their salaries). So they had to have peace with the contractors at any price. That price was class partnership – with the contractors, and with the gangsters who had come to be the intermediaries that regulated competition in the industry and kept construction prices and contractor profits high. This didn’t go over very well with the workers – or with the more socialist or communist oriented business agents. There was one last big wave of left led construction worker activism during World War I, which came to a head during the citywide Carpenters Union strike of May 1, 1916. In the wake of that strike, which was won on the picketline and betrayed behind closed doors, right wing forces in the leadership of the construction unions, partnered with the contractors and Irish gangsters, decisively broke the back of the left in the New York building trades and imposed patronage driven authoritarian pro contractor regimes in the unions. The gangsters, the contractors and the unions also set about imposing a widespread scheme of price fixing in the industry. The gangsters organized the contractors to rig the bidding on major jobs, and used the Carpenters and the Teamsters unions as enforcers against those bosses who didn’t want to go along with the cartel. That triggered a short lived backlash in 1921, which led to the jailing of the Irish gangster who ran the District Council of Carpenters (he became the first labor racketeer to ever get sent to jail in this country) and triggered a short lived and ultimately failed drive by the clients to bust the construction unions. The unions survived that attack, because the contractors found them a useful source of trained skilled labor and the gangsters found them a useful tool to enforce their protection rackets. That worked out great for the business agents – for the members, it meant that they exchanged modest short term economic gains for the long term independence of their unions. This dysfunctional marriage lasted for a very long time. It survived the displacement of the Irish gangsters by Jewish bootleggers in the 1930s and their replacement by Italian American cosa nostra in the 1940s. It survived the rise of power tools, sheetrock and the subcontractor system in the 1950s. What finally brought that alliance to an end was something called the Business Roundtable, founded by Roger Blough, the CEO of US Steel, in 1969. That was a movement among major corporations, led by the CEO of US Steel, to force their construction contractors to reduce the wages of construction workers and break the power of the Building Trades unions. Outside of New York and a few other major cities the Roundtable triumphed over the Building Trades. By 1978 they had crippled the construction unions in most of the nation, reduced them to about 20% of the construction labor force largely confined to big highway and public sector jobs and remade construction as a low wage job largely done by poor Mexican immigrants. In New York City, the alliance between contractors, cosa nostra and the unions made a direct attack impossible. So the developers here had to reach out to the FBI to do it for them. That worked – in a series of federal racketeering cases between 1978 and 1994, just about every major cosa nostra labor racketeer was jailed and federal monitors were permanently stationed in two of the city’s biggest construction unions, the Mason Tenders and the District Council of Carpenters. The construction unions had already been weakened by their failed policy of massive resistance to the desegregation of union membership. Recalcitrant union racism spawned a movement of armed Maoist-led Black, Latino and Chinese-American construction workers groups called The Coalition which forced the contractors and the unions to integrate with organized raids on segregated jobsites. However, the fall of de facto segregation and the collapse of labor racketeering wasn’t what deunionized the industry – the City of New York took care of that. In the wake of the City ‘s repeal of Rent Control in 1971, New York landlords went on an orgy of driving out working class tenants, hiring arsonists to burn down low rent buildings in Black and Latino neighborhoods and using public funds to build high rent apartment buildings in White neighborhoods. By 1975, that epidemic of real estate greed had literally bankrupted the City of New York and forced it into receivership by the Wall Street banks and had left many of the city’s ghettoes as bombed out wastelands. The City of New York had to rebuild those buildings and the bankers wouldn’t allow them to use well paid union labor to do the work. So, the City laundered the funds through the network of Democratic Party oriented Community Based Organizations that had sprung up in the inner cities during the inner city rebellions of the 1960s. Those groups and their real estate developer partners were the client of record on these renovation jobs, not the City, so they were not bound by Davis Bacon wage requirements. This enabled them to use low paying non union contractors and that’s exactly what they did. Initially, some of those non union contractors were front companies for unionized firms and many of the workers were union members, desperate for work due to the deep recession that was going on at the time. The District Council of Carpenters, the main union in residential construction, aided this process by letting contractors pay a substandard wage for renovation work. When a small local of the Painters Union, Drywall Tapers local 1974, didn’t go along with those concessions and went on strike in 1978, the Carpenters Union openly scabbed on them and the Plasterers Union helped the Genovese crime family recruit scabs. Within a few years, about 50,000 of the city’s 200,000 construction workers were non union. By the building boom of the 2000s, fully half the industry, 100,000 workers, was non union. At least 50,000 of those workers were being paid $ 7 or $ 8 hr off the books for their labor. Even in the unions, there were certain contractors – particularly in hirise concrete, drywall and ceilings and scaffolding in the residential sector, office furniture installation and venetian blind installation in commerical and painting and paperhanging in both – that offered workers steady jobs if they would work for less than union scale. This wholesale attack on union labor largely went uncontested for the first 15 years. In the wake of the racketeering prosecutions in the early 1990s, the federal monitorships in the Mason Tenders District Council and the District Council of Carpenters actually began trying to organize non union workers. The efforts initially involved trying to offer concessionary low wage contracts to attract scab contractors – which failed because those firms pay so poorly that any contract above minimum wage would be unacceptable to those bosses. The Carpenters and Mason Tenders soon turned to picketing and the inflatable rubber rats that they used at their protests became a common site around the city. The high point of that organizing campaign was the 1998 rally against Roy Kay, a scab GC being used by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to build a subway command center. Much to the dismay of the BCTC leadership, the 40,000 construction workers at that rally turned it in to a de facto citywide construction workers strike, and occupied the Midtown Manhattan streets until the cops attacked them with pepper spray and horses. After that, the handful of unions that did organizing dramatically toned town their activism, perhaps because they feared a second edition of the “40,000 Man March”. Eventually, the two main organizing unions, the District Council of Carpenters and the Mason Tenders were joined by Painters District Council # 9 and Ironworkers local 361, but their limited efforts, though well intentioned, were not enough to reverse the tide of deunionization. At least they did something – most construction unions did absolutely nothing about organizing. By 2007, when the bottom fell out of the market, the stage had been set for the developers to launch an attack, emboldened by union weakness and filled with lust for the riches to be had by pauperizing the union tradespeople the way their crosstown competitors fleece the minimum wage non union workers. 4. To die on our feet, or live on our knees: That’s where we stand now – what the hell can we do about it? Obviously, we have to fight back, in a unified way. We can’t leave one trade out there to be attacked – today it’s the Operating Engineers under the gun, tomorrow it could be our trade. If the leaders of our unions aren’t prepared to resist (and there’s some reason to think that may be the case) then we as rank and file workers have to take matters into our own hands. A good start would be a zero tolerance policy on scabbing. That is, if one trade has to strike on June 30, then we all refuse to work behind their picket lines. Our unions have no strike clauses in their agreements with the employers, but while they put restrictions on the conduct of our unions as institutions, those agreements are not binding on individual workers – we have a right to respect a picketline and we need to exercise that right. We also have to go on the offensive here. The billionaire real estate developers and the GCs have arrayed a powerful coalition of forces against us; the subcontractors, the corporate media, the not for profit sector, the Buildings Department and the NYPD. They’ve also put an enormous amount of energy into the task of mudslinging against our unions and making us look like a bunch of lazy greedy bums in the eyes of the general public. The best way to resist those attacks is to break with the isolated, insular, country club unionism which has been the dominant style of the Building Trades for most of the last century. We can’t stand alone in this time of crisis – we need to reach out for allies just to survive, let alone to have any hopes of actually winning. Our logical allies are people that, like us, are also victimized by the real estate developers. That would include; our 100,000 non union brothers and sisters on the non union side of the industry, the 70,000 Service Employees International Union local 32bj janitors and security guards, the 30,000 UNITE-HERE local 6 hotel workers, the 100,000 non union janitors, supers and porters in this city, the 4 million New Yorkers who rent apartments in privately owned apartment houses, the tens of thousands of small businesses in rented storefronts. To get the support of these folks, we have to broaden our demands. Of course we have to fight to preserve our wages, benefits, work rules, our apprenticeship programs and every benefit and right we’ve won over 150 years of struggle. However, we also have to demand that our non union brothers and sisters get the same wages and benefits we do. To quote the slogan that the District Council of Carpenters uses on area standards pickets “Same Work! Same Pay!” First and foremost we need to demand that the Espaillat-Lopez bill, which would extend Davis Bacon wage protection to HPD funded affordable housing construction jobs, be passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Cuomo Also, as most of us in the industry know, much of the non union construction workforce are undocumented immigrants – particularly the 50,000 workers, a quarter of our industry, who are paid minimum wage off the books. We need to demand that their employers not only pay these brothers and sisters what they are worth, but we should also demand that those employers sponsor their undocumented workers for green cards, or at the very least for H-2A nonimmigrant work visas! After all, those bosses have profited so much by paying those workers so little – those sweatshop bosses really do owe it to their workforce. This also would be a good time to push to organize the non union sector – not by picketing with the inflatable rat or one contractor at a time NLRB elections, but by going after all of the shops in a given market segment and organizing their workers to go out on simultaneous recognition strikes. Yes, we’re in a bad economy – but remember, back in the Great Depression, when the economy was far worse than it is now, American unions carried out the greatest wave of union organizing in American history. Especially in our case, when the main driving force behind BTEA and REBNY’s attacks on our wages is the huge wage differential between the $ 50/hr on the books construction workforce and the $ 8/hr off the books building labor force, it is in our enlightened self interest to fight to bring the $ 8/hr workers up to our wage scale before we get pushed down to theirs. We also need to attack the real estate billionaires on a front where they are vulnerable – their rent gouging which has brought them so much wealth and has brought so much misery to so many New Yorkers. This is a city where 80% of the population are renters and where most of the small businesses are located in rented premises. The profiteering of New York landlords has plundered the population of this city, of all classes, for over 40 years. They burned and bankrupted the city in the 1970s, with the Black and Latino parts of this city the hardest hit, they’ve been waging a decades long economic war of attrition against working class and poor New Yorkers (in particular Blacks, Latinos and immigrants) and they have driven many small manufacturers and merchants out of business due to their relentless rent gouging. From 1947 to 1971 we had Rent Control in this city. Landlord profiteering was held in check, small businesses and manufacturers flourished and poor people and the working class had decent low cost apartments to live in. We need to fight for a restoration of Rent Control, on both commercial properties and residential apartments. Also, obviously, we need to unite with the civil service unions, who are being demonized by the same corporate media that attacks us and who are similarly threatened with destruction, and support their fight to preserve their wages and conditions. We really need to mend fences with our 166,000 brothers and sisters who work for the State of New York, and with the leaders of the Civil Service Employees Union and the Public Employees Federation. Last year, the leaders of the NYC Building and Construction Trades Council and the New York State Building Trades Council joined forces with some of the same corporate labor haters who are targeting us now, to back then Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign explicitly because he was going to attack the pensions and benefits of state employees. That’s not the first time that our unions have betrayed our brothers and sisters in other industries – however, we can, and damned well should, make it the last time! The idea here is simple – an injury to one is the concern of all (a very old trade union concept that most modern labor leaders never talk about). The real estate developers, and the capitalist class as a whole, want to single us out, isolate us and defeat us. The only way we can survive, let alone win, is to get as many allies as we can so we can isolate and defeat the billionaire real estate developers. The leaders of the construction unions are still following their century old strategy of “class partnership” – a strategy which has decisively failed. This is an absurdity in a situation where the contractors have made it obvious that they do not want to collaborate with us and our unions! We and our unions can no longer stand alone, separate from the rest of labor – that never really worked in the past, and it certainly isn’t a viable strategy now! If our union leaders aren’t willing to unite with the rest of labor and with the working class as a whole to fight the corporate power, we need to replace them with leaders who will. Our choice is clear – stand and fight, or kneel and beg! We didn’t break the economy – the greedheads on Wall Street did! No way in hell we should have to pay for it!
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