Labor War in Chelsea

For the first time, non-union immigrants are building Manhattan's high-rise towers

All of the incidents at the job sites are currently being investigated by the labor racketeering unit of the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, a spokeswoman confirmed.

Sam Chang, the projects' developer, failed to return several calls to his office in Floral Park. A secretary suggested that he might respond to an e-mail message, but those also went unanswered. Also playing nonspeaking roles in the drama were Jimmy Wu, owner of the contracting firm Tritel, and Michael Mahoney of EMC, both of whom did not respond to messages.

Carpenters' union organizer Tommy Costello: "Our fight's not with the workers."
photo: Giuletta Verdon-Roe
Carpenters' union organizer Tommy Costello: "Our fight's not with the workers."

Carpenters' union official Tommy Costello: "Our fight's not with the workers."
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe
Union organizers are careful to emphasize that their beef is with the employers, not the workers.

"What they've got going here is an underground economy," said Tom Costello of the New York District Council of Carpenters, who has been monitoring the West Side non-union sites. "There's no taxes being paid, there's no workers' compensation, no health protections."

Costello's father was a carpenter who emigrated from Ireland and found work through the union after his arrival. A carpenter for more than 30 years, Costello has worked as a foreman on major construction projects, and also as an instructor in the union's apprentice training program. He said he had watched in amazement at the risks being taken by the non-union workers as the building has taken shape. "You're sending a kid from São Paolo, Brazil, and another from County Donegal, and neither one of them has ever worked on more than a two- or three-story job, and making them a high-rise construction worker. It's not that easy," he said.

He said that standard procedures for testing the strength of the concrete and the durability of the steel reinforcement bars were not being conducted. "Someone's going to get hurt on the job," he said, "and the public should also be worried."

Another union organizer, Andres Puerta, whose family came from Ecuador, said that he had persuaded several individual workers to sign up with the union. "They talk about how scared they are," said Puerta. "They're scared of being hurt at work, and they're scared of losing the job. Most of them are sending money to family members at home."

The union organizers said that most of the young immigrants had brushed off suggestions that they needed health insurance in case of illness or injury. "They think, 'What do I need that for?' " said Costello. "Most of these guys are making $25 an hour cash, and they are putting in 60 hours a week. So maybe they're making $1,500 a week, not paying any taxes. They see it as the best deal of their lives."

John Greaney, the president of the carpenters' Local 608, which has 7,500 members and whose jurisdiction covers Manhattan's West Side, said the union was trying to appeal to both employers and workers alike. "Our fight is not with the workers," said Greaney. "We welcome them. We are not going to do the job of the government. We are not INS agents. What we're up against here is the corporate greed of these developers and construction companies."

Whatever their motivation, non-union contractors are clearly taking up a bigger share of construction work. Nationally, according to research by the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, unions' share of the construction industry has plummeted from a high of 80 percent in the years right after World War II to less than 18 percent today. Even in New York State, traditionally union-strong territory, organized labor's share slipped below 50 percent for the first time in the 1990s and is believed to be even less currently.

The notion that organized labor will be able to forever hold on to big-ticket projects has been nourished by giant, government-backed developments like the pending new Freedom Tower in Lower Manhattan and the new stadiums slated for Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. In each of those cases, labor used its political muscle to help win approvals. But while labor was focusing on those mega-projects, private developers of non-union ventures like the new high-rises in the West Twenties have slipped into town.

"There's been a false sense of security," said one union labor analyst. "There's a creep factor that started in the South and the Southwest, and eventually hit upstate and the outer boroughs. Now it's right in Manhattan."

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