West Chelsea Site ‘Flagged’ for Non-Union Work, Unsafe Conditions

Organizers and currently unemployed union cement and concrete workers in front of their rat, one of three owned by the union. This inflatable rodent tells us that nearby, non-union construction is underway. | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

BY JUDY L. RICHHEIMER | The message conveyed by the 14-foot-high inflatable rat, standing weekday mornings for nearly two months at the southeast corner of 10th Ave. and W. 25 St., is clear to many New Yorkers: There is a construction site nearby employing non-union labor, and there are unionized workers also nearby who want to tell you why that is a terrible thing. 

The rat is one of three owned by the Cement and Concrete Workers of New York City, also known as District 16, whose members handle excavation and construction of columns and floors. William Loria, organizer for the union, explains, “We have two functional rats. The third is in the shop.” The W. 25th St. rat is positioned somewhat differently from its counterparts around the city. Generally, inflatable rats are stationed directly in front of the non-union site, while this one signals from across the avenue to the southwest corner, where the foundation for 500 W. 25th St., a residential tower, is being laid.

Loria wanted the rat situated closer to the object of his scorn. But, he recalled, “The first day that we were here we had the rat across the street [directly in front of the site]. We were asked by the police to move it further away. He [the officer] claimed that the rat had to be at least 15 feet from the job site.” Loria was dubious, but did as he was told. “I’ve learned from experience that it’s just better to follow along with what they [the police] say. Even if you’re right, they’re right.” Loria and his colleagues acquiesced on that point, but remained vigilant in their fight against contractors who hire non-union — a sector of the construction world that has grown even in New York, a city that once had a 90 percent union construction workforce.

The current percentage of union to non-union construction workers here is a vexed point among both industry and labor activists, and the controversy crosses ideological lines. According to the progressive Murphy Institute for Worker Education, organized labor accounts for 31 percent of the city’s construction workforce, while the Real Estate Board of New York states that the percentage is at least 10 points higher. Gary LaBarbera, the famously outspoken president of the labor advocacy group, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, has flatly asserted, “Seventy percent are union. There is no way around that number,” drawing on federal statistics. However, some analysts find it impossible to determine the differential between union and non-union construction because many non-union workers are paid off the books, thus giving organized labor an artificially high percentage of the total workforce.

The view from the High Line of the construction site for 500 W. 25th St. One of the men on the platform was spotted there without his hardhat, a violation of OSHA rules. | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

Regardless of its current strength, District 16 is determined to bring public opinion in line with its cause. Toward that end, its organizers have been explaining to Chelsea residents and anyone else walking near their “soft” picket that union construction is safer than non-union construction. Underscoring that point, Loria spotted a construction truck associated with 500 W. 25th that was blocking the sidewalk, and furthermore, no “flag men” (“or women,” Loria corrected himself) were in sight. A flagger’s job is to alert pedestrians and vehicles to the obstruction ahead. “Look at that kid having to walk between the cars. This is the stuff we don’t like. This is how people get hurt.” Loria, along with lead organizer, Joe Scopo, asserted that flagging has almost never been in place when deliveries are made to the site. That kind of carelessness does not occur, they said, on a union site, but is typical for non-union jobs.

“Flaggers serve a very import role, but not just for the public,” according to Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the nonprofit New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH).“Struck-bys are one of the leading causes of fatalities on construction sites,” she said, noting, “Flaggers are essential to keep workers from getting killed.”

Contradicting Loria and Scopo, Obernauer recalled an instance where flaggers were missing from a union site, which caused two workers to walk off the job. However, she acknowledged that, because the project was union, the situation was quickly cured, and the men could return to their jobs. Also, Obernauer quoted the following statistic that backs up the claim that union sites are safer: 93.8 percent of construction fatalities that occurred in New York City were on non-union jobs, according to the most recent Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report, covering the year of 2016.

Loria, who in addition to organizing, conducts the union’s OSHA training course, has been calling 311 to report safety violations at 500 W. 25th St. Because one of those violations was that some windows on the construction fence (painted government-mandated hunter green) were often blocked from viewing inside — this reporter discovered that the windows were not only blocked, there weren’t enough of them to meet Department of Buildings (DOB) standards — Loria has performed his monitoring tasks from the High Line, where he can look down into the pit. Last month, this reporter joined him there, and we spotted a new violation: a man working on the site without his hardhat. Later, Scopo commented, “I have thousands of pictures of people without hardhats at non-union sites. I have a picture where they were wearing a sombrero, another they were wearing a cowboy hat.”

Citing safety hazards, the Department of Buildings has twice shut down work at 500 W. 25th St. for several days at a time. Violations included at least one in the Class 1(Immediately Hazardous) category — not having a safety monitor on site. (The DOB  website stated that the DOB inspector spoke by phone to the safety manager, who said that he was “en route” to the job.) “If he’s not there, you really shouldn’t do any work at all,” Loria averred.

William Loria points out that a potential exit from the construction site onto the street is almost always locked from the outside. | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

Both Loria and Scopo asserted that, in addition to having overall better compliance with safety rules — in fact, many contractors concede that point — union site safety practices often exceed OSHA and DOB standards. An example: Loria was particularly nettled that a door leading directly from the site onto the street could have served as an excellent place for personnel to enter and exit, save for the fact that it has been locked almost continuously from the outside. On the other hand, the door that was designated for personnel required the worker to make a small detour before going from site to sidewalk. Loria said that on a union site the first door would have been unlocked and available to workers throughout the day — it primarily functions now as a portal to bring equipment in and out — and Scopo added that union contractors generally provide their workers with more than one exit.

As cited on the DOB website, a May 12 construction accident occurred at 500 W. 25th St., which involved a worker getting hit on the leg by a piece of construction material; the accident was rumored to be serious. Although the organizing team had befriended certain workers at the site and thereby acquired critical information, they have found it impossible to learn how badly the worker was hurt. What we do know was that his injury required an ambulance. One worker-informant identified himself to the union organizers as the person who had called 911, an act that earned him sharp disapproval from a manager who wanted simply to put the injured man in a taxi.

Obernauer told Chelsea Now that this story was similar to those shared at NYCOSH trainings. “Workers get injured and not only are ambulances not called, but they are told to just get off the job. Or, you will hear about employers dropping injured workers off at hospitals and telling them, ‘Don’t say that you work on my site.’ ”

LaBarbera believes, though, that “low-road developers” who hire non-union contractors are in the minority, and most “understand value-proposition building,” which entails union staffing.

After repeated attempts to reach Avo, the contractor for 500 W. 25th St., we were referred to the site’s developer, GDS Development, headed by Michael Kirchmann, who declined comment. Foundation work was initiated by sub-contractor Red Ball, which could not be located, and later handled by Benchmark (the accident occurred under its watch), which did not respond to our e-mail. But like many current labor leaders, LaBarbera feels that to stay competitive, unions must make concessions, which means that new hires receive a lower hourly pay and a less attractive benefits package as compared to compensation paid to veteran workers.

District 16 fits that model. Around two years ago, new, or B level, workers were given $33.50 per hour, while veteran, or A level, workers received around $44 per hour. And, while medical was the same for both groups, B-level pensions were lower than the A-level plan. Chelsea Now discovered that these compromises were not universally embraced by District 16 members. Still, if it is true — as District 16 organizers learned from 500 W. 25th St. workers — a senior employee at that site receives just $19 an hour, then $33.50 would be an excellent hourly wage.

At the end of his shift, Loria helped deflate and pack up the rat. He mentioned that he felt no animus toward non-unionized workers — his anger was directed at their employers. Perhaps that attitude has informed his feeling toward the rat itself. “Some people call him Scabby,” he said, gesturing toward the red blotches across the rat’s belly, “but I call him Mickey. After all, I have to work with him every day.”

Labor organizer William Loria monitors conditions of a non-union work site from atop the High Line. The street-level windows designed for construction site viewing are missing or often blocked for 500 W. 25th St. | Photo by Judy L. Richheimer

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