By Albert Samaha
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The American labor movement appears headed for a bitter brawl this summer when the annual convention of the AFL-CIO convenes in Chicago in late July. The sharpest debate will be over a demand advanced by several of the nation's biggest unions that labor rededicate its resources to a massive organizing blitz aimed at big non-union shops like Wal-Mart. It's a demand that carries echoes of the feisty organizing drives of the old CIO in the 1930s, when a revitalized union movement fought to extend bargaining rights to unskilled industrial workers. These days, the workers left out in the cold are more likely to be low-wage clerks at big box stores like Wal-Mart, or undocumented immigrants who are increasingly being handed the nation's toughest chores.
But while fierce debate wages within organized labor over how to proceed, some of the unions espousing the grow-or-die strategy are putting their money and energies where their mouths are. One of them is the Laborers International Union of North America, the 800,000-member construction workers organization that is trying to fight its way back from years of corrupt domination by leaders who were cozier with the mob than with their own members.
Last week, the Laborers collected 50 organizers from around the country and turned them loose in the streets of New York to spotlight non-union jobs, while at the same time providing hands-on training for new recruits. Organizers came from Seattle, Cleveland, Miami, and Los Angeles. Part of the strategy, explained David Johnson, director of the union's Eastern Region Organizing Fund, is to utilize rank-and-file members who show on-the-job spunk and smarts, giving them technical training through Cornell University's labor studies program while at the same time providing a trial by fire, sending them into non-union workplaces.
In an exercise that illustrated what unions are up against, as well as the exploitation faced by some workers, the Laborers targeted one chronic headache, a major interior-demolition company called Advanced Contracting. The Manhattan-based firm has long resisted unionization, while handling work at many of the city's biggest and swankiest office buildings.
The union adopted a two-pronged strategy: It put picketers on the street outside the giant 2 Penn Plaza on West 34th Street, where Advanced is carrying out office demolition on several floors, and secretly dispatched two organizers to work for Advanced to check out conditions and employee sentiments.
The union "salts" were Otto Montenegro, 34, and Luis Guanoquiza, 33, members of Laborers Local 79 for the past five years. Virtually all of the workers for Advanced are Latino, the union said, and it was hoped that Montenegro and Guanoquiza, both from Ecuador, could easily blend in.
They had no problem and, within minutes, had decoded a key secret: Most workers aren't employed by the company itself, they reported, but are hired from temporary labor agencies and treated as independent contractors. A supervisor for the demolition firm told them that in order to be hired, the workers needed to first go to a small temp agency in Forest Hills where they could fill out the necessary paperwork. At the R. Friends Cleaners & Services Corporation on Austin Street, the undercover organizers were asked few questions. They were told they should buy themselves work boots and show up at 2 Penn Plaza at 6 p.m. The pay was $7.50 an hour. "Don't worry, easy job, very easy," a clerk at the agency told them.
It wasn't. The work involved pulling down ceilings and walls and ripping out bathrooms. It was hot, dusty, and dark. "There were no lights," said Montenegro. No hard hats were provided, and workers were given only flimsy paper masks and thin gloves. If you get cut, they were warned, bandage it up or go home. Some areas, the men said, were laced with toxic asbestos, which is supposed to be handled only by licensed workers. No water was provided, they said, or time allowed for breaks.
The pace was relentless. One foreman was "a watcher," who made sure no one slacked off, said Guanoquiza. The other was "a pusher" who drove the men to keep working.
The two organizers kept at it over the next three nights, working 11-hour shifts until 4:30 a.m., when they went home exhausted. No overtime pay was offered or provided.
Since the union's incursion into Advanced was as much for its educational benefits as for its organizing possibilities, an executive decision was made after the third day that the job was simply too dangerous to the organizers' health. Otto and Luis were told to approach their fellow workers, offering them union cards to sign. "We figured the other workers would be sympathetic, but too scared to sign up, and that once the foremen saw what was going on, they would just fire our guys," said Johnson.
But when the organizers passed out cards and explained the benefits of a union contract, 17 of the 18 other workers immediately began filling them out. The foremen, however, behaved as predicted. "You causing problems on my job?" said one supervisor, who immediately ordered them to go home. When they asked if he was firing them, the foreman hedged, presumably aware that to fire workers directly engaged in union organizing can be an expensive violation of labor laws if prosecuted. Instead, he called security guards to evict them.
But this too didn't work out as planned. The other workers announced that if Otto and Luis were being booted, they would go as well. About 15 workers took the elevator downstairs where they were met by Johnson and a backup contingent of Laborers members. After a sidewalk strategy session, Johnson and another veteran organizer, Jerry Ball, who heads the union's organizing efforts in Seattle, called one of the foremen to say that the men had walked out in an unfair-labor protest, and were making an unconditional offer to return to work. This too was a tactic, designed to protect the workers' rights if the complaint reached a labor board hearing. The flummoxed foreman wasn't sure what to do. "You'll have to speak to the top boss," he told them.
The day after the protest, the Laborers invited all of the workers who had walked off the job to meet at the nearby offices of Local 79 on Eighth Avenue. Of the seven men who showed up there the next morning, all but one said they had arrived in the country illegally within recent years, leaving homes in Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico. Robert Fuchs, an immigration attorney working with the union, took general histories from each of the men, and explained their options under the law.
All of the workers said they had been dispatched to Advanced by the temp agency, R. Friends, which was listed on their paychecks. No taxes were deducted from the checks and no pay stubs provided. The men said they were told upfront at the temp agency that all hours worked would be paid at the same rate. In what the union said was an apparent dodge of overtime laws, the men received a separate check from another temp agency with the same address as R. Friends covering any hours worked beyond the 40-hour federal limit.
Last week, a woman answering the phone at R. Friends confirmed that Advanced uses workers from the agency but said she couldn't provide any information. Eugene Skowronski, the listed owner of Advanced, did not return calls. Also ducking questions was Vornado Realty, the powerful corporate owner of 2 Penn Plaza as well as many of the city's biggest office buildings. The firm is currently bidding, as part of a partnership with Related Companies, to handle the $600 million transformation of the Farley Post Office into a new midtown train station.
Johnson, the Laborers' organizing director, said there was little surprising about the problems discovered at Advanced: "Abuses of immigrant workers today are like the abuses of unskilled workers in the 1930s that organized labor fought to address. This is the next battlefront."