Sandhogs Tunneling Under Second Avenue

Veteran sandhogs are finishing tunnels for the future subway, right beneath your feet

There was also the work itself.

"It provided the structure I'd gotten used to in the Army," Buzzell says. "That and my superiors yelling at me."

Buzzell's father spent two years in the Air Force. This was in part what led Tom to enlist. Sandhogging, too, often runs in the family. Pat Barr's grandfather and father worked on the Lincoln Tunnel. His son, his son-in-law, and a nephew are working on the East Side Access; a second nephew was a gang foreman on Second Avenue. Another Second Avenue gang foreman was the son of the project's superintendent.

Thanks to technological advance-ments, such as time-delayed fuses, sandhogs are safer on the job 
than ever before. But injury and death remain constant threats.
Brad DeCecco
Thanks to technological advance-ments, such as time-delayed fuses, sandhogs are safer on the job than ever before. But injury and death remain constant threats.
The sandhogs range in age from late teens to late sixties and hail from as far away as Ireland and the Grenadines.
Brad DeCecco
The sandhogs range in age from late teens to late sixties and hail from as far away as Ireland and the Grenadines.

That's another parallel between soldier and sandhog life, one that particularly appeals to Buzzell: the hierarchy. Just as in the military, the sandhogs follow a strict chain of command. At the bottom is the gang, typically composed of six men. Each gang is led by a foreman, who reports to a walking boss, who in turn reports to a superintendent. Unlike the military, though, sandhog rank can change from project to project. Depending on recent performance as well as on what men and positions are available, a walking boss on one job might be a gang member on another and vice versa. Also, there is no pay grade: Except for the project superintendent, all sandhogs take home the same $45 an hour. Counting the money directed into union-benefit funds, the rate is closer to $100 an hour. In a busy year, a sandhog can make more than $100,000. (Financial compensation is one thing the sandhogs and the military most assuredly do not have in common. In 2012, basic pay for an Army private first class with less than two years of experience is $21,089.)

While the sandhogs are among the highest-earning laborers in the country, they give the lie to any public perception of union sloth, of work being needlessly, greedily dragged out. "The faster we get the job done," says 51-year-old, 30-year-veteran Scott Chesman, "the more work the city is likely to give us." Plus, on a job like pouring concrete, speed is imperative.

For the Second Avenue tunnels, the concrete was trucked in from Queens and delivered underground through a six-inch diameter pipe called a slick line. The slick line is screwed together in 10-foot segments, each costing $400. On this project, the slick line stretched as long as 1,500 feet. If the concrete is not applied to the tunnel quickly enough, or if the balance of retarder and accelerator in the mix isn't precise, or if one of the trucks gets stuck in traffic, the concrete in the slick line begins to set up. When this happens, with $60,000 worth of slick line at stake, the trucks have to stop pumping, and the slick line has to be flushed, what's called "shooting the rabbit." That's as much as a quarter-mile of concrete expelled into a pile that must be shoveled into muck bags—roughly 40 pounds per bag once hardened—and then wheelbarrowed and heaved by hand, bag by bag, into a dumpster. Lunch and urination are infrequent. (Even when working fast, the work is slow-going. Because of the six hours it takes the concrete to fully set and the time necessary to break down and move and reassemble the multi-ton steel arch form, progress is limited to at most 120 feet per day.)

Pride and competitiveness also motivate the sandhogs. None of the three shifts—day, swing, and graveyard—want to be shown up and thus subjected to endless, merciless trash talk. These good-natured rivalries also exist within the shifts: Brooklyn versus the Bronx, Grenada versus Carriacou, especially Army versus Marines. "I'm always busting Buzzell's balls," says 35-year-old Paul Salamone, who served in the Marines from 1995 to 1999 and joined Local 147 in January 2011. "You know, Army stands for 'Aren't Ready for the Marines Yet.' And he busts my balls for not seeing any combat. But I love Tom. At the end of the day, there's that bond between us, even deeper than the bond between all sandhogs."

Just as much as in the tunnels, this chest-puffing and barb-trading takes place in the hog house, the warren of conjoined, windowless trailers where the sandhogs change and stow their clothes—what is the military equivalent of a barrack, though also a commissary and, to some extent, even a chapel, for there is a distinct sacredness to the place. This particular job's hog house was located on the southeast corner of 93rd Street and Second Avenue, but every job has one, and each one is essentially the same: closet-size office for the steward; lockers graffitied with the occupant's name and a patriotic slogan or union salutation or two ("Here's to those who love NYC sandhogs, and to hell with the rest"); American flag hanging from the ceiling; toilets and sinks and showers; washer and dryer ("Our wives would leave us if we made them clean our clothes," Scott Chesman says); space heaters; soda machine; refrigerator; coffee station. The scent of grounds is just one component of a pungent potpourri that also includes sweat, mildew, Lava soap, diesel gasoline, cigarettes, and cigars. Butts stamped out on the plywood floor are later swept up by the hog-house man, a retired sandhog who serves as custodian. There is no radio or music. A bulky TV atop the lockers is rarely turned on.

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18 comments
wemsdb
wemsdb

Hello to Pat Barr my Marine Corps Brother. Bill Johnson Local 103 IBEW Boston, MA.

Amgems
Amgems

You've obviously never done any physical labor, or you'd understand these "guts" earn every penny they make.

Reykjavik
Reykjavik

$100/hr for miners anywhere else in the country who make less than half that? And that doesn't even count the Byzantine work rules and manning levels that permit many sandhogs to earn more than $200K/yr. And because they have a lock on that sort of labor (as do crane operators), there's no chance of price competition. You wonder why subway and train projects cost many billions and there's been only token system expansions over the past half century? Look no further. Taxpayers of course end up getting victimized. Yeah, it's a grimy, dangerous job that I wouldn't want, but that's no reason to pay these guts obscene amounts.

Sean Ghazala
Sean Ghazala

Great article - one correction

the fulton street transit center is being built in lower manhattan at the corner of Broadway and Fulton st - not downtown brooklyn' fulton st

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JamesM
JamesM

Gr8 article re the rebuilding of NYC & all of those 'non-outsource-able' jobs performed by the hardworking sandhog community led by leaders & Patriots such as Pat Barr......jmch.

Quit_geo
Quit_geo

That is very strong, but If we need more workers entered the list As I and worked in construction and have practiced in that. Job want more seven months

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BLUE PILL  RED PILL
BLUE PILL RED PILL

pandemics already let out,,,are these sources for real or fake ?benjamin fulford on sars...let out to target asians.....martial law....this is how they plan to kill us..george green...,bush if true talked about how dissedents will go to camps! oh and nuclear attacks on us,warned by illumanti in movies,sum of all fears film...man wears serpent on arm logo of higher mason serpent brotherhoods,5000 years old.... film KABOOM 2011 black project nuclear sites sit beside known military sites for nuclear launching.... russian nuclear things are in u.s ready...,russian submarines of coast of u.s ? or how about submarines manned with anyone off streets then go back to life's....after BOOM LAUNCH...,or people working for these gons leave bombs in cities....corrupted government.... submarine stuff is conjecture..but who knows...they could boom us any day....

BLUE PILL  RED PILL
BLUE PILL RED PILL

obama and george bush have done mason signs.....with hands used in lodges....obama ia an ethiopan jew too...past 52 presidents are all related........obama is 7th cousin to bush...,oh and nazi's from ww2 run intell,project paper clip...and an ex general of army headed cia as a satanist.....busy evil bee's ! they own all things on this planet,food companies,drink...banks,media ect.....law.....

BLUE PILL  RED PILL
BLUE PILL RED PILL

good sand hogs but we have evil one ruling us some of them..from day zero to today.....evil kings and evil leaders in there bloodlines.............,i read SAALM O1 scribd document too the annuki bloodline..albino with red eyes....im sure its not fake,check it out...........,also masonic jews....rule earth too....,george washington sits with neptune,mercury,saturn as satan is part of this family......its painted or was on congress ceiling......

jeremystackhouse
jeremystackhouse

@Reykjavik they get exposed to silica sand... and they are doing some of the most important excavation in Manhattan... I say they deserve to live as well as intern stock brokers in NY who get their cushy jobs from family connections, and besides its hard to survive in Manhattan if you don't earn at least 100k. 

 
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