A private- and public-union coalition that includes the leaders of New York City’s Building Trades, the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the Uniformed Fire Officers Association and Transport Workers Union Local 100 is supporting a City Council bill that would mandate apprentice training for all construction workers.
The full-court press for requiring training comes amid a spike in workplace deaths and injuries during the city’s construction boom.
30 Deaths in Past 2 Years
According to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a non-profit advocacy group, in the last two years there have been 30 construction-work-site deaths. According to NYCOSH, 90 percent of those fatalities were at non-union worksites that often rely on undocumented workers.
Last week, thousands of rank-and-file members of the city’s Building Trades Council converged on City Hall to show their support for the measure, which is part of a 20-bill construction-industry-safety-reform package under consideration by the City Council.
Jake Lemonda, president of the UFOA, told the crowd that his members had witnessed first-hand the consequences of inadequate construction-worker training when retrieving dead bodies from the accident scenes. “Thirty times we had to go to a site and take that person back to their loved ones,” he said. “We know as fire officers about training. We know the dangers we face and we train every single day. That is what you deserve. You deserve to work in a safe environment.”
“All too often our members respond to a construction accident, and we pull up on the scene and you can tell this could have been prevented had the proper training been given to those construction workers,” said UFA President Jim Slevin. “These tragedies should not be happening. Nobody should put a dollar value on the safety of construction workers.”
Both men’s remarks were greeted by roars of approval from the crowd that spanned several blocks. TWU Local 100 officials said that President John Samuelsen had been scheduled to address the rally but canceled because of the passing of his father.
‘Can’t Tolerate Negligence’
“We gather at City Hall today to demonstrate our support for this critically-important package of bills that will protect the lives of construction workers across the five boroughs,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York. “We can no longer tolerate irresponsible developers and contractors who are putting profits over the safety of workers. This must end now.”
At a City Council hearing on the measure last week, city Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler testified against the training requirement contending that “there are more precise and beneficial ways to enhance safety.” As an alternative, he supports mandating that workers attend a 10-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration training course.
In a statement, Real Estate Board of New York President John Banks said that the reforms were not data-driven and would hurt workers and builders alike. “Ideas, like requiring state-approved apprenticeship programs, will only result in shutting down construction sites and putting people out of work,” he said.
In a report released last month, NYCOSH found that New York City had the highest fatal occupational-injury rate in construction, at 4.7 times the average rate in other big cities. “In New York City, the construction sector sees more than one-third (34 percent) of workplace deaths, despite the fact that it employs approximately three percent of the total workforce,” NYCOSH wrote. “In Los Angeles and Chicago, where construction employs a similar proportion of the workforce, the industries see 32 percent and 24 percent of workplace deaths, respectively.”
A Turning Point
City construction-union leaders say a guilty verdict last summer in the workplace death of a 22-year-old undocumented laborer from Ecuador was a major turning point in their battle with the city’s non-union contractors, who have made inroads during the city’s multi-billion dollar housing boom.
Back in July of 2016, Harco Construction LLC was convicted in state court of manslaughter, as well as criminally-negligent homicide in the April 2015 cave-in death of Carlos Moncayo. He was part of a crew of workers doing excavation and foundation work at the non-union site in the city’s Meatpacking District. During the trial, prosecutors said the company had ignored multiple warnings from site inspectors that the excavation site was not properly shored up according to both city, state and Federal regulations and requirements.
Harco is appealing that conviction. Supporters of the company say the verdict unfairly criminalizes their industry when there can be multiple causes for a fatal accident that are not the fault of the contractor.
Back in 2015, the New York Times did an in-depth examination into the circumstances involved with construction-site deaths for the prior two years and confirmed “an increase in fatalities and injuries” that “mostly affected undocumented laborers” that “far exceeds the rate of new construction” over the same period also found that many of the deaths “were completely avoidable.”
Boom’s Dark Side
In the last few years, according to the city’s Department of Buildings, the city has seen a 329-percent increase in construction volume since 2009 and a 517-percent increase in new residential starts over the same period.
According to the DOB in 2013, there were three construction-related worker deaths and 203 injuries. By 2015, the number of workplace deaths had spiked to 12, with 472 injuries reported. Last year the agency reported a dozen deaths again.
Federal regulators at OSHA, however, listed 31 deaths during that two-year period.
‘A Moral Bill’
Mike Maguire, the political director of the Mason Tenders Council of Greater New York, said in an interview at City Hall that he was optimistic about the training bill’s prospects. He said, despite the de Blasio administration’s opposition to the measure, the coalition could get a veto-proof City Council majority over the next couple of months.
“We have 15 or 16 sponsors as of today and it is a moral bill and we will build on that number,” he said. “Construction has always been and remains the most dangerous major industry in the country, and every time there is a building boom in New York City, the fatalities goes up. It is very clear that the non-union workers are being treated just as disposable human beings by the contractors and developers.”
The Mason Tenders political director maintained that in addition to superior craft training, union workers had the prerogative to challenge management over unsafe conditions. “A union worker has the freedom to say to the boss I am not going up on that unsafe scaffold; I am not going down into that unshorn up trench,” he said. “What we have here is largely an undocumented workforce that is threatened every day with being deported or with losing their job.”
Mr. Maguire said he believed Mr. de Blasio’s opposition was spurred by his close ties to the real-estate industry. “The Mayor has absolutely no respect for construction workers whatsoever,” he said. The Mayor’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Maguire says the coalition between the UFA, UFOA and the Building Trades was a logical one that was reinforced when they all worked to pass the Zadroga Act to help their members cope with 9/11’s health fall-out. “We also skew more conservative on both sides and so we have always been friendly with them…but I think after 9/11, it got stronger because everybody that was on the pile” was either a first-responder or “a laborer or an ironworker.”