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Low Wages in High Places

Concrete proof: Martin Szabunio and union pickets.
Cary Conover

Not to question the wisdom of anyone who wants to sleep in a luxury high-rise with a two-ton automobile in the next room, but if you're thinking of doing so at a new condo going up in West Chelsea, you might want to stop by to see how things are going.

The 19-story building now rising at the corner of Eleventh Avenue and West 24th Street will be the first to offer what's called en suite parking. This is the latest novelty in the ever-escalating battle to snare apartment shoppers cruising Manhattan's new high-end condos.

It works this way: You drive off the street right into the building and onto a big car elevator. This lifts you directly into your condo, where you pull your auto into a 12-by-20-foot room—about the size of a studio apartment. In the morning, the car is there waiting for you, more patiently than spouse or dog. Next step: Summon car elevator. Drive onto lift. Pilot car back to street. Could even the Great Trump top this?

The answer is no, or he would have done so already. Everyone knows that the will to privacy is greatest among the rich, and the in-house garage concept offers something priceless—no more nodding to the doorman, no more waiting on sleepy garage attendants, no more worrying about some klutz scratching the Beemer. The idea must have struck the designers of 200 Eleventh Avenue like a bolt of lightning: suburban-style attached garages in the city! McMansions stacked high into Manhattan airspace!

And why not? Prices here start at $2.5 million and top out at $14 million for a three-bedroom spread with a two-story, cathedral-ceiling living room (another nice suburban touch). When the developer sought a zoning change to accommodate the live-in parking slots, the local community board turned thumbs down, noting that both current rules and Mayor Bloomberg's new environmental plan demand that new parking spots be kept to a minimum. This was quickly overturned by the mayor's own planning commission. The commissioners said they were persuaded after the developer explained that rich people own more cars than the rest of us.

Don't ask. This is the age we live in, where the excesses of conspicuous consumption offend at every turn.

But you could ask a very reasonable question as to why developers of a complex catering to the leisure class have to skimp on wages to the workers who are building it. The condo is being erected by nonunion labor, which in itself wouldn't be the worst thing if pay and benefits were even close to union scale. But workers here report that they get no benefits—no health coverage, no pension, no holidays. Sometimes there are no wages.

Two weeks ago, a 48-year-old carpenter named Dagoberto Monteiro walked across the street to talk to the union pickets who have been a regular presence at the job site. Monteiro, who is from Brazil and lives in Newark, told carpenters' union organizer Andres Puerta that he hadn't been paid for the past four weeks.

He explained that he had been getting $18 an hour from one company while building a hotel on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan. There was no overtime pay, he said, and the workers often labored for 50 hours or more each week. Then, Monteiro said, men he called "tough guys from the Bronx" approached him on the job and said he was working for them now. When his pay envelope came, he noted that he had been cut to $17 an hour. Even stranger, he was now listed as "Dago Berto," living at an address in the Bronx. "I never lived there," he told the union.

He was dispatched to build concrete forms on the Eleventh Avenue job in July but, a few weeks later, his paychecks just stopped coming. He asked what was happening and was told not to worry. When supervisors saw Monteiro showing the union organizers his pay stubs, they began yelling at him. "They were screaming, 'Get back over here, we've got your check,'" said Tom Costello, a carpenters' union official who helped Monteiro get a union card last week.

Standing on the block where the condo is rising, you can get a pretty good view of the two New Yorks, separate and unequal. This is deep art-gallery country now, and there is a steady parade of well-heeled sophisticates, often arriving in limos. A couple of weeks ago, the union pickets spotted Mick Jagger on the block. They beckoned him over and asked him to pose for arm-around photos. The star obliged. "He's taller than you'd think," said Costello. "We're thinking of using the picture on a flyer saying 'Mick supports the union.' I don't think he'll mind."

There is another parade on the block, this one of pickup trucks with license plates from Florida and New Mexico delivering laborers to the project. Workers are packed five and six apiece in the cab and carry their tools and work harnesses in the back. Most are Hispanic men who look nervously over their shoulders as they walk onto the site. The handful who have talked to the union say that many were recruited in Florida and the Southwest and driven to the city. Several are being boarded at a Bowery-style flophouse on Eighth Avenue near Penn Station. The rate there is $130 a week for a chicken-wire-covered cubicle.

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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