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Demolition Man

Rat vs. crook: members of Local 79 of the Laborers' Union protestingnon-union contractor at west side site
photo: Julia Xanthos

For nearly a year, one of the most notorious figures in the city's demolition industry has been overseeing a major municipal project on Manhattan's west side.

The project is the dismantling of the sanitation garage at Twelfth Avenue, a mammoth two-block-wide hangar-style structure that straddles 56th Street near the Hudson River, where for decades the department of sanitation housed its trucks. The undertaking is part of a five-year plan to demolish the old garage and build a new one in its place.

To do so, the sanitation department awarded a $4.2 million contract in 1999 to the lowest bidder, a non-union company called Rapid Demolition, based in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn.

The dismantling effort has been underway for months at the site, but the project has been afflicted by problems from the start. Four times, firefighters have been called to extinguish blazes at the garage, where demolition workers used acetylene torches to cut huge steel girders. One of the fires occurred this March on a wooden scaffolding around the building. "The renovation company had left a torch burning on [a] bridge and left for the evening," fire investigators stated in their report.

The worst incident occurred in June, when the immense scaffolding that had girded the building's western wall suddenly collapsed into the street. Rapid blamed the scaffolding subcontractor, but city inspectors said it was Rapid's fault. They said the collapse was triggered when demo workers tied steel cables around a huge elevator bulkhead, then connected them to a bulldozer to try and pull it down, instead of breaking it up piece by piece as rules require. The maneuver knocked bricks from the outer wall onto the scaffolding, sending it plunging onto busy Twelfth Avenue in a cascade of wood and metal.

Miraculously, no one was injured, but the wreckage caused a weeklong, traffic-snarling mess that forced cars and trucks exiting the West Side Highway to detour around the area.

There have also been problems with the demolition firm's workforce. Several employees at the site have complained of being paid wages of $8 to $10 an hour, well below the $28 per hour plus benefits that Rapid is required to pay under its contract with the city. The Laborers' Union, which has mounted regular protests at the site, has presented complaints about the alleged underpayments to the office of city comptroller William Thompson, where an investigation is underway.

The listed owner of Rapid Demolition is Joseph Najjar, a 20-year veteran of the trade, who insists that none of the problems at the site are of his making and dismisses the union's allegations as "malarkey." But Najjar acknowledged that the man overseeing the garage project, whose name appears nowhere on the reams of official disclosure documents that Najjar filed with the city, is a 74-year-old legend of the demolition business named Philip Schwab.

Any single part of Phil Schwab's résumé should be enough to win him banishment from government work. He has served two stretches in prison: the first for bribing a crooked federal inspector to ignore the illegal disposal of cancer-causing asbestos, the second for failing to pay thousands of dollars in payroll taxes for his employees.

Until those episodes, Schwab was the head of the nation's largest demolition concern, tearing down steel and power plants around the country. In addition to sprawling mansions in Florida and Westchester County, his ownership interests included a Nevada casino, a major portion of the Hilton Head Island resort in South Carolina, and a racetrack in Washington State. But he tumbled into a massive bankruptcy in the late 1980s involving dozens of banks and insurance companies, many of which claimed he had bamboozled them into lending him money. Today, federal and state tax authorities have judgments of $2.5 million and $1.7 million, respectively, filed against Schwab at his home in Pelham, just across the city line. A bank is seeking $9 million from him.

"I have had my trials and tribulations, no question about that," Schwab said last week after being reached on his cell phone. As for now, he said, "I am doing what I can do, just trying to make a living."

What that means in terms of the sanitation garage project is this: "I try and solve the problems. I go there [to the project] occasionally," he said. Schwab insisted he had no ownership interest in Rapid. "I never had any ownership," he said. "I can't own anything anyways," he said, referring to his still unresolved financial problems. "They take it away from me. That is the way it works."

Najjar also described Schwab as only a knowledgeable aide. "He is just helping me out, doing some consulting," said Najjar. "He is a good guy; we know each other 20 years."

Whatever his role, Schwab's presence at the site has been such a problem that the sanitation department's construction manager, Bovis Lend Lease, last month insisted that he be removed from the job. In a memo, Bovis blamed Schwab for sending crews to work on weekends without a permit, and for violating a city stop-work order imposed following the scaffold collapse. "You are directed to remove your supervisor (Phil Schwab) from subject project—IMMEDIATELY," wrote Bovis's manager to Najjar.

Schwab denied violating any rules. Instead, he blamed his problems on his repeated run-ins with union demonstrators, who have set up one of their giant inflated rubber rats outside the job in protest of Rapid Demolition's non-union status.

"I have too big a mouth," said Schwab. "I am 74 and I wanted to go to fisticuffs with these guys. Rapid is doing the job non-union and he has every right. And these union people, they blow up this big rat and they try to stop the trucks and they interrogate the men. It really aggravates me. It is no fun," he went on. "They go after me personally. I am trying to eat my lunch in the diner and this guy, he puts a rat mask on and peers right in the window. It is embarrassing, humiliating," he said.

Which is pretty much what Local 79 of the Laborers' Union intended him to feel when it began mounting its demonstrations several months ago. The protests are not part of an organizing drive, union officials said, but rather a protest against an employer that isn't playing by the rules.

"We don't even want to represent this guy," said Chaz Rynkiewicz, of Local 79. "We wouldn't want any of our members to work for him."

Laborers' research director Oona Adams also spotted something that slipped past the city's multi-layered contract investigations system: Rapid's failure to disclose a 1998 state tax judgment for $80,000 for unpaid workers' compensation taxes. The union also objected when Rapid hired a Long Island scrap metal firm that is under investigation for allegedly taking in metal looted from the World Trade Center just days after the collapse.

Najjar dismissed the failure to list the lien on his disclosure form as "a mistake." As for the Long Island scrap company, he said, "they're just a carting firm; I use whoever I can to get the best service."

Most of the complaints raised by the union against Rapid Demolition and Schwab were confirmed in a 16-page report last month by the city's Department of Investigation, which found the company had engaged in unsafe practices. But removing the firm is still up to the sanitation department. "We have consulted with other agencies and the facts don't warrant firing the contractor at this point," said Vito Turso, spokesman for the agency.

Despite the order to stay clear of the job from its construction manager, Schwab, a short balding man, was at the site early Friday with a small crew of half a dozen workers, one of whom had spent the night sleeping under the sidewalk shed. The crew went to work in the gathering August heat shoveling dusty concrete rubble inside the cavernous building. "They're the only ones being humiliated here," said Rynkiewicz of the Laborers' Union as he stood outside watching. "They're cheated out of a decent day's pay."


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