IMPERFECT STORM
Hurricane Sandy and the New York building trades

You would think that, in a city that had just suffered a major storm that destroyed thousands of homes and buildings, there would be little to no unemployment in the construction trades.

That’s actually the claim that Louis Colletti, the president of the Building Trades Employers Association and self proclaimed spokesman of the New York construction industry made in a recent interview with Crain’s New York Business.

Problem is, that’s just not true – at least for the unionized segment of the industry.

In the New York District Council of Carpenters, unemployment is 45%. Of the 16,946 men and women in that union in 2010, 7,565 are currently unemployed – 2,116 of them have been out of work so long that they’ve actually quit the union to seek greener pastures elsewhere (often in the non union side of carpentry, which has approximately 24,000 jobs – many of which are full time, unlike the union side of the industry, which is mostly casual labor.)

It’s not clear when all the jobs which, supposedly, are going to result from the tragedy of the hurricane are going to materialize.

As of this writing in mid December, 6 weeks after the storm, much of the rubble hasn’t even been cleared yet. Even in the heart of the Financial District in Lower Manhattan, major office buildings are still getting water pumped out of their basements and emergency mold removal, demolition and electrical repair work performed.

In the working class neighborhoods that were devastated, matters are even worse.

Red Hook, Coney Island, Canarsie, Howard Beach, Broad Channel, the Rockaways, the South Shore of Staten Island, Throggs Neck, Chinatown and the Lower East Side are still in ruins.

Some institutions like schools, hospitals and precincts are being repaired. Single family homes and apartments (especially the New York City Housing Authority’s public housing projects) are still largely in ruins.

The City of New York’s Rapid Repairs program is carrying out free emergency repairs to owner occupied single family homes that haven’t been condemned by the Department of Buildings, with the work being done by home improvement contractors.

The City expects to be reimbursed in full or in part for these expenses by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

A lot of work is being done by homeowners themselves, or by volunteers, including a large contingent organized by Occupy Wall Street.

As for folks in rental apartments, what repairs are being done is largely up to the landlords.

The city’s biggest landlord, the New York City Housing Authority, and the smallest landlords, the owners of two, three and four family houses, have been the ones least likely to perform repairs for their tenants.

The repair work on office buildings, hospitals, schools, the boardwalks and the subways is largely being done by union labor.

The residential repair work is overwhelmingly non union – other than some of the work in the projects, almost all of the residential repair work is being done by non union contractors.

That’s not happening in a vacuum.

Residential construction work has been systematically deunionized in this city over the past 34 years, with the City of New York and its housing agencies, the NYC Housing Authority and the NYC Department of Housing and Urban Development, systematically deunionizing the trades workforce that builds and repairs their buildings.

Why would they stop now?

Largely as a result of those policies, and of the failure of the then largely organized crime run construction trade unions to make any serious effort to resist the deunionization of residential construction in this city, 50% of the 200,000 construction workers in this city are non union.

About half of those 100,000 unorganized workers - 50,000 - are low wage undocumented off the books tradespeople many of whom are paid as little as $ 7/hr for skilled trades and $ 4/hr for laborers and helpers.

That is the workforce that will be doing the bulk of the Hurricane Sandy cleanup and repairs.

Since HPD and the Housing Authority have been looking the other way at low wage labor practices on their own jobs for the past 30 years, it is doubtful that they’ll take any notice of wage and hour violations on these FEMA jobs.

It’s also highly improbable that the federal or state Departments of Labor will take note of these abuses either, or the Internal Revenue Service, or the NYS Department of Taxation and Finance, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or FEMA for that matter, since the open labor abuses and tax evasion by general contractors and subcontractors have become a way of life in that construction market segment over the past three decades.

The unionized contractors have made no effort in the past to fight the systematic wage theft and tax evasion of their scab competitors. Some have even actively participated in it by running “double breasted” (part union, part scab) companies. The union contractors have repeatedly asked for wage and benefit cuts and elimination of union control over hiring – basically to push union workers pay and conditions closer to non union levels.

The unions haven’t had much of an answer either other than area standards picketing of large sites run by major scab contractors and, in the case of the Carpenters and the Laborers, limited efforts to organize scab contractors.

Unionized construction workers and our unions should take the opportunity presented by this tragedy. We should push the city, state and feds to require that all contractors doing Sandy repair work pay prevailing wages, actively punish the ones that don’t and demand that federal, state and city funding for Sandy repairs be sufficient that contractors can actually pay prevailing wages to their workers.

We also need to speak up for the hundreds of thousands of working class residents of the flood zones – many of whom are construction workers, both union and non union.

We should demand that all homeowners get FEMA grants of an adequate amount to repair their homes using workers getting paid area standard wages.

We also have to speak out for poor and working class tenants in the flood zones. We should demand that the NYC Housing Authority step up repair work on its damaged projects in the flood zones, using workers getting paid area standard wages and not charging rent to flood zone tenants until their buildings have been 100% repaired. We should demand that FEMA provide funding for all of this.

We should also demand that HPD hire contractors that pay area standard wages to repair all private apartment buildings in the flood zones whose landlords have not yet repaired them, with FEMA covering the cost of this work.

Our unions should also take this opportunity to organize non union tradespeople currently working on Sandy repair jobs. Since the bulk of these workers are going to be residential carpenters and demolition laborers, the NYC District Council of Carpenters and the Mason Tenders District Council of the Laborers Union should take the lead in organizing this market segment.

All of the construction unions have organized volunteer efforts in the flood zones – with the District Council of Carpenters and the Mason Tenders District Council having the most active cleanup programs.

That’s all very nice but it’s just not good enough.

Climate change means that this kind of disaster is going to happen in this part of the country more frequently. We need to demand that the government provide for victims of the disaster, especially poor and working class disaster victims who can’t pay for repairs on their own. We also need to demand that disaster repair work be 100% union or at the very least under area standard wages and benefits.









commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER, LOCAL 157 CARPENTER
FOR GANGBOX: CONSTRUCTION WORKERS NEWS SERVICE
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“UNION NOW, UNION FOREVER”
Originally published on Tuesday, December 11, 2012
© 2012 Gregory A. Butler, all rights reserved.