Attacks by NY contractors grow, how can construction workers fight back?

By Terry Evans
May 7, 2018
April 4 Times Square march against bosses’ moves to step up nonunion construction in N.Y.
Count Me InApril 4 Times Square march against bosses’ moves to step up nonunion construction in N.Y.

NEW YORK — “All workers need unions, they make us stronger,” said Wilmer Serrano, a construction worker who takes part in daily protests here organized by Ironworkers Union Local 46 outside the Hudson Yards development. Bosses at Related Companies, the largest developer in the city, have refused to sign a union agreement during the second phase of the project, instead hiring workers from nonunion contractors.

“We’ve been protesting for three weeks and moved the union hiring hall here,” said Terry Moore, the local’s business manager. “Our guys get paid at least $72 an hour. The guys they hire now get between $15 and $30.”

Especially since the 2008 capitalist financial crisis and a sharpening of cutthroat competition for bids and profits, the bosses pushed the union out of more and more sites and pushed the workers harder, resulting in a grisly rise in deaths and injuries on the job. Across New York state the number of fatalities reached a 14-year high in 2016. Construction workers make up 5 percent of the city’s workforce, but account for 27 percent of all workplace deaths.

Thousands of workers, chanting “Union!” rallied at Times Square April 4 to protest the bosses’ anti-union assault. Several hundred rally twice a week at the Hudson Yards site as part of a “Count Me In” campaign organized by building trade unions.

For decades the union officials have relied on backing Democratic Party candidates as the key to defending the union instead of leading workers in a sustained fight against the bosses’ attacks. And as competition from nonunion contractors increased, union officials offered significant concessions to try to convince the bosses to keep using union labor.

As a consequence union membership in the city’s construction industry has plummeted from 90 percent in the 1970s to less than 31 percent today. And this weakens the labor movement as a whole.

Union officials often signed “project labor agreements” that include wage cuts and no-strike clauses in an effort to win contracts. The Building and Construction Trades Council made concessions to secure a contract with Related Companies in the first phase of the Hudson Yards development.

Union officials say they are not opposed to the nonunion workers. Some say they would prefer to get them in the union, but since many are immigrants without proper papers, even if they signed up, they say, the bosses would run their names through E-Verify and fire them. Echoing the officials, some workers say there’s not enough work to go around and it should go to those already in the union. Competition between workers for jobs is built into capitalism.

Unless the unorganized workers are brought into the union, the unions will continue to lose ground.

This is a life-and-death question for workers in construction and many other industries. It highlights the critical importance of the labor movement joining fights in defense of the undocumented, calling for an amnesty for all workers without papers.

The unions should also fight for a government-funded public works program to build the things working people need, from housing to hospitals, schools, mass transit and day care centers. Such a program would put millions to work, including in construction.

The road to overcome the divisions that the bosses, their government and immigration cops sow amongst working people can transform our unions into fighting instruments of the workers. Unions need to campaign for all the oppressed and exploited, like they would do if they fought for amnesty, to build solidarity and working-class unity. You can see glimmers of this in the social movement being built around teachers’ battles today.

How the nonunion workers can be organized is something many workers at the protests are trying to think out and the debate is lively.

“We need to get the nonunion guys on board, the union should do more to reach out to win them,” Wilmer Serrano told the Militant.