High-Cost Condos, Low-Cost Labor—and Threats of Violence to Union Organizers

In this age of housing gluttony, high-rise builders sink to new lows

This Bloomberg era will be forever known as the age of housing gluttony. How else to describe a city where those with the means to do so have no compunction about seizing an entire tenement for their personal enjoyment, as one landlord is doing on a Lower East Side block? What better word is there when a clothing designer splurges $17.5 million on a new West Side condominium, an apartment that includes a parking spot for his automobile—on the 19th floor?

But we should expect no less. After all, the elected leader of the city lives alone in an Upper East Side mansion. He has 7,000 square feet to wander about while looking at his statues. It has become a commandment for the city's elite: Michael Bloomberg—live like him!

Go to the Web sites for these new high-rises that the Condo Mayor has seeded and nurtured in his two terms. Press the buttons and watch these glorious projects magically sprout and soar like sunflowers in the summer sun.

Yet those of us on the outside looking in could probably forgive them the pieces of sky they steal. We'll put up with the way they cram the cityscape shared by all. What is unforgivable is the refusal to provide the laborers who erect these new palaces a living wage and a safe workplace.

That fabulous car-park condo on Eleventh Avenue? Built with laborers from Mexico and beyond, working 12-hour shifts at $17 or less an hour (a story told here last September).

Now comes the latest entry in the new high-rises that race to the bottom when it comes to wages. It is going up at the corner of Myrtle and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn, just a couple blocks from the Manhattan Bridge, at the entryway to what has long been a poor and working-class stretch of Fort Greene. It is dubbed the "Toren Condo"—a Dutch word, meaning tower. It is designed by the finest of architects: the SOM firm. It is being developed by BFC Partners: Donald Capoccia, principal.

Capoccia rose as a housing developer as he donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki, and President Bush. He recently told the newsletter The Real Deal that he launched his career by using a truck full of day laborers hired from a street corner. Capoccia found no time last week to speak to the Voice, but his operating methods don't appear to have fundamentally changed.

To construct his tower and its 240 condos—prices: $300,000 to $1 million–plus—Capoccia has opted to use nonunion labor. This alone would be understandable if wages were close to par. But according to Omar Lopez, an organizer for Ironworkers Local 361, where members make $38 an hour plus benefits and pension, workers at the site report that they are receiving from $12 to $25 an hour—with zero benefits. "He's got them working 12-hour days, six days a week," said Lopez. "Then, when they look in their pay envelopes, they're short a lot of hours. When they ask what happened, they're told: 'You'll get it next time.' "

Capoccia's luxury project is being built with steel, and last week you could watch in wonder as an immense tower crane swung beams into the outstretched hands of workers perilously perched on the 30th floor of the emerging skeleton. The contractor handling this part of the job is called Super Structure Builders. Its owner is Thomas Auringer, who runs a half-dozen construction companies and has become the go-to provider for the growing number of nonunion city builders in need of cranes. Auringer was happy to talk to The New York Times when he was the first one to "jump" a tower crane after the fatal crane accident in March on East 51st Street. But he got shy when the Voice called last week, refusing to get on the line.


A few blocks away from the Toren project, another Auringer company, U.S. Reinforced Concrete, is building a new 23-story Sheraton hotel. Workers there tried to vote in the carpenters union last year. In an affidavit to federal labor officials, a former supervisor at the hotel project described the response from Auringer's project manager after he asked the boss about the union: "He said he had about six guns on the job, and he had people there who would do whatever needed to be done. He said that he could dig a hole and put me in it and make the records showing I worked for the company disappear."

Other workers at the project told the National Labor Relations Board that managers promised them a $5-an-hour raise to vote against the union. Last November, the NLRB ordered Auringer to post a notice promising not to make such threats. A new vote was canceled after Auringer fired 10 pro-union employees on the election's eve. An NLRB official said the matter is under investigation.

Lopez, the ironworkers-union organizer, knew all this when he took on the task of trying to organize the Toren site. A native of El Salvador who witnessed the murder of an uncle who was also an organizer, Lopez, 43, started as a laborer on Long Island. He said he tried to talk to Capoccia, but the developer refused his business card. "He told me, 'I don't need your card.' "

The ironworkers decided to blow up a photo of Capoccia and mount it on a truck. They wrote beneath it: "Shame on Donald Capoccia—Don't profit off immigrant worker poverty." It also carried the developers' office and cell-phone numbers. Then they drove the truck around the work site, City Hall, and Capoccia's bank.

On Saturday evening, June 14, Lopez was in front of his Elmhurst home about to take his nine-year-old daughter to buy some ice cream when a menacing figure appeared. "The guy was about five-foot-nine; he's carrying this big green umbrella and glaring at us. I had a bad feeling. I told my daughter we had to go back. She knew something was wrong. She ran right upstairs and told my wife to call 911, that Daddy was in trouble."

Lopez ducked inside and peered through the window. The lurker walked past his door and disappeared. When he opened the door to look down the street, the man was standing on an adjacent stoop, staring. "I said, 'Are you looking for me?' He cupped his ear like he didn't hear me. I said, 'Are you fucking looking for me?' Then he ran at me with the umbrella and reached under his jacket. I closed the door. He hit the door a bunch of times with the handle of the umbrella. He was shouting, 'I find you and I got you now!' He did that a few times and then went away.' "

The police never arrived, but on Monday, Lopez and an ironworkers-union representative, Anthony DeBlasie, drove to the 110th Precinct and the district attorney's office to report the incident. Meanwhile, Lopez is planning to take his truck with Capoccia's picture to the next meeting of the city's Water Board, where the developer is a board member. "I knew about this rough stuff in El Salvador," he said last week. "I didn't expect it here."

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