Low Wages in High Places

At a new Chelsea extrava-condo, parking reaches up to the sky and the workers are way down below

As in all the new high-priced developments, there's a nice website about the condo project (200eleventhavenue.com). Getting developers and builders to talk is harder. Officials at Young Woo & Associates said they were too busy to get on the phone. At the job site, a contractor named Michael "Mickey" Mahoney, whose company is building the project, accepted a reporter's business card but shook his head when asked to talk. Mahoney has been tangling with the unions for over a year, and he is currently the subject of an investigation into wage and civil-rights violations by the state attorney general's office. Officials there declined to comment.

The project superintendent, a tall man with shaggy hair who represents the developer on the site, was friendly enough but didn't want to give his name. "It's going all right. These guys aren't helping us out any, though," he said, gesturing at the pickets across the street. "They keep making unfounded calls to the buildings department."

One of those calls came on Monday evening last week, when carpenters' union organizer Martin Szabunio was watching Mahoney's crew pour concrete for a new floor. Suddenly, a pair of floor braces—used as support until the concrete floor above hardens—started leaning galley-west toward New Jersey. Steel floor beams slid in the same direction. As Szabunio was watching, Mahoney sauntered over to him. "Why don't you get a life?" the builder said. Szabunio gestured to the sliding beams. "You've got a problem," he said.

Mahoney raced onto the site, where he corralled workers who quickly began shoring up the beams. When police arrived, contractors told them they had it under control. A buildings-department inspector later issued a stop-work order, but only for working illegally after hours.

The next morning, workers could be seen still trying to bang new beams into place to support the ones that had slipped awry. A young man in a hard hat stood on a ladder leaning perilously against a flimsy wooden guard rail. Robert Ledwith, the business manager for Local 46 of the lathers' union, watched. "It's just shoddy work," he said. Ledwith sits on a mayoral commission aimed at increasing building-trades employment among minorities. "There's no reason in the world they can't pay a fair wage on this job," he said. "We have this competition with nonunion employers now all the time, but this isn't a fair fight when you can get away with these conditions."

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