Workers Vanguard No. 982

10 June 2011


Labor Tops Push “Partnership” with Bosses

Capitalists Gun for NYC Construction Unions

Organize the Unorganized!

For Union Control of Safety!

NEW YORK CITY—With contracts for more than two dozen unions representing 60,000 construction workers expiring by June 30, the building owners, developers and contractors smell blood. When the nation’s real estate market tanked and the economy went south three years ago, large-scale construction in the city was hit hard. The total number of construction jobs has dropped to its lowest level in 13 years, even as Donald Trump, Richard LeFrak, Stephen Ross and other major developers keep right on stacking their billions. Over the years, an increasing number of construction projects have gone to non-union labor, which constitutes at least one-quarter of the workforce in a city where just about every hard hat once possessed a union card. Now stalled projects are beginning to reopen, and the Manhattan real estate barons are planning the biggest decade of office construction since the 1980s.

Like General Motors, which is making record profits after the White House helped wrest massive concessions from the United Auto Workers, the players in the NYC real estate industry spot a golden opportunity to go after union construction workers, historically some of the highest paid workers in the country. The capitalists have sought for decades to chip away at their status. In 1951, the Supreme Court banned “common situs” picketing of an entire construction site even when the dispute is with a single contractor, paving the way for incursions by non-union builders. The Building Trades Employers’ Association (BTEA) bosses want changes to work rules that would undercut safety standards. They also want to take back hard-won union controls of job site conditions, slash overtime rates and hollow out health care and other union benefits. In a subway ad and Internet campaign earlier this year, the BTEA attempted to sell union members on major givebacks in the name of saving union jobs. Last week, the builders upped the ante, threatening to end their participation in the “New York Plan”—a more than century-old pact that commits them to using only union labor on major projects.

Workers’ lives, not just their livelihoods, are at stake. In 2009, nearly one-third of those fatally injured on the job in New York City were Latino and 8 percent were Asian, two groups heavily represented in non-union residential construction outside Manhattan. Many safety precautions have already been sacrificed by the union tops, endangering workers and the public. Nine people, including at least four members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), died in two separate crane accidents on the Upper East Side in 2008, when corners were cut on safety. Of all the workplace deaths that year, 21 percent were in construction. These grueling jobs often involve long hours under the sun or in dangerously cold, windy conditions, during which attention to detail is especially vital for safety.

In no small part because IUOE members can quickly bring any large project to a halt, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is taking special aim at the union, angling to take away its control over crane operator licensing and to get rid of senior master mechanics, relief crane operators and oilers. REBNY president Steven Spinola snarled: “If it’s nonproductive work, why are we paying for it?” In April, the corporation-supported Regional Plan Association presented a widely publicized study to City Hall proposing anti-labor “reforms” like beginning the eight-hour day once a worker reaches his station, which in NYC can be many floors up, rather than upon arrival at the job site. The study also attacked the union hiring hall for fostering “a worker’s loyalty to his union…rather than to any actual employer.”

Building-trades workers don’t have to eat it. Union hands shaped the city skyline, and the construction unions—one of the few remaining bastions of organized labor in private industry and a labor linchpin here—can still wield considerable power. As the New York Times (18 March) put it, employers “are wary of pressing too hard, because a strike by just one union could be enough to shut down many of the city’s major construction projects.” These unions showed their potential power in 1998, when a rally against the hiring of non-union construction outfits by the Metropolitan Transit Authority and others effectively became a one-day citywide construction strike. In Chicago last year, a 19-day strike by thousands of laborers and operating engineers brought road repairs and other construction to a standstill, winning a 9.75 percent wage increase over three years.

The NYC bosses’ offensive against the construction trades can only be turned back through hard class struggle, as is true for unions that are under attack across the country. This must include an aggressive drive to organize non-union workers, crucially including the growing immigrant layer in construction as well as black workers who historically have been all but excluded from many of the skilled trades. But standing in the way of such struggle are the hidebound bureaucrats atop the construction craft unions, who barely lift a finger to organize and go into contract negotiations with track records short on strikes and job-site shutdowns and long on accommodating the bosses and the capitalist Democratic Party.

Stop the Givebacks!

With their narrow, job-trusting policies, the building-trades officials have long tied construction workers’ interests to those of the developers and contractors who make their profits by exploiting labor. This certainly is the case with Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York (BCTC), which represents 100,000 workers in 15 unions. In a Daily News (29 May) op-ed piece, LaBarbera trumpeted, “Rather than inflating costs, unions have been among the only players in the construction industry working hard to bring them down.”

Shortly after assuming his current post in 2009, LaBarbera collaborated closely with Building Trades Employers’ Association president Louis J. Coletti to negotiate new Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). These sweetheart deals with contractors and builders like Larry Silverstein, covering large private and public construction projects in the city, shredded work rules and outrageously included no-strike clauses to cut labor costs and supposedly save jobs. Sold in the name of “shared sacrifice,” these pacts only whetted the appetites of the city’s real estate magnates for more concessions from labor.

In late April, the leadership of District Council 9 (DC 9) painters union, whose contract was set to expire on April 30, gave even more ground. Among their massive concessions were abolishing the union’s hiring hall and setting up a new cheap-labor tier of wages and benefits for workers building housing in NYC’s outer boroughs. Painters and tapers on those jobs will get paid one-third of the rate for commercial jobs downtown. Rather than fight to organize the non-union contractors, the DC 9 officials have enlisted in a race to the bottom, in what the BTEA hopes is a precedent for other unions.

In his service to big business, LaBarbera has gone the extra mile to undermine union rights, wages and benefits, and not just in his own bailiwick. Backing Democrat Andrew Cuomo in last year’s gubernatorial race, LaBarbera joined business and real estate tycoons in the “Committee to Save New York,” a capitalist cabal that has bankrolled Cuomo’s war against the public workers unions. He intoned that “without a fiscally sound environment, we will not be able to attract new business” to New York City, adding that “at times there will be competing interests between public- and private-sector unions” (New York Times, 9 December 2010). LaBarbera was not only going after AFSCME and other public employees unions but also the municipal divisions of the IBEW electrical workers, Carpenters and other skilled trades unions that are under his own leadership! The wages and benefits of these unions are effectively set by those prevailing in the private sector.

As we wrote in “All Labor Must Fight Assault on Public Workers Unions!” (WV No. 975, 4 March): “In the face of a growing army of unemployed, the gutting of pensions, the lack of health care and the elimination of other social programs and benefits, the answer of the trade-union bureaucrats is to pit worker against worker in the struggle to survive.” Now it is LaBarbera’s own unions that are on the chopping block. If the construction unions cede their stronghold in New York City, it would expose the flanks of the remaining bastions of union power—city workers, transit workers, teachers, hospital workers, building service workers—many of whom are themselves moving into contract negotiations.

This underscores the need to break with the class-collaborationist program of the labor officialdom, which has time and again shown its capacity to “sacrifice” labor’s interests for the bosses’ bottom line. What is necessary is joint struggle by the many unions making up the construction trades, whose power lies in their ability to stop building projects through strike action. This points to the need for one industrial union of all construction workers, with an industry-wide hiring hall system and union control of training.

Job Safety and Union Organization

For construction workers, and for the working class as a whole, defense of their unions is a matter of life and death. Speedup and callous disregard for workers’ safety are intrinsic to capitalist production. Where there is no union, there is no organized force to resist the relentless drive of the bosses to increase profits at the expense of workers’ safety. A recent study on coal mining by a Stanford Law School professor established what miners already know: that non-union mines are deathtraps compared to unionized mines (“Study Finds Fewer Fatalities, Injuries at Union Mines,” Charleston Daily Mail, 26 May). Job-site safety must be actively overseen and enforced by the unions, which should immediately shut down unsafe sites. But as the recent uptick in NYC union construction site fatalities shows, where the union leadership sees its relationship to the bosses as a “partnership,” safety is eroded and more workers get hurt or die.

With the union tops substituting inflatable rats for picket lines and giving away the store at the bargaining table, the construction trades have lost a lot of ground to non-union operations, leaving unorganized workers at the bosses’ mercy. Many of these workers are immigrant day laborers who are brutally exploited, cheated out of wages and subjected to murderously unsafe working conditions. New York’s El Diario is full of reports on workplace accidents at job sites lacking safety equipment.

Unless there is an energetic campaign to organize the unorganized, the construction trade unions will continue to wither, and their members will continue to see their conditions deteriorate. The unions in this and other industries must recruit immigrant workers with full rights and benefits. This requires defending undocumented workers against immigration raids and roundups, undercutting the anti-union maneuvers of the capitalists and their government. Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

Any such struggle means fighting against the “America first” chauvinism of the bureaucratic misleaders of the construction trades and of the labor movement as a whole. Following the 2001 attack that destroyed the World Trade Center, the construction union tops latched on to the government’s “war on terror” with special zeal. In 2003, they organized a thousands-strong rally in support of the imperialist war against Iraq, and last year they joined in the reactionary demonstrations against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Thus they promote the lie of a “national interest” binding the workers to the American capitalist rulers, who had no qualms about throwing workers on the scrap heap when the current economic crisis hit. For nearly a decade, the government refused to shell out money for health care for construction workers who volunteered to clean up the World Trade Center site. A strike by construction workers on the massive rebuilding project on this site would be a good start in fighting against the capitalists’ anti-union barrage.

Against Racist Divide-and-Rule!

There must also be a struggle inside the unions to break with the racist job-trusting that long kept the skilled trades virtually impenetrable for blacks. The union bureaucrats’ hostility to opening up union jobs to minorities made the unions vulnerable to government-backed schemes to gut union gains in the name of fighting discrimination. In 1970, the Nixon administration implemented the “Philadelphia Plan,” which, disguised as an effort to promote racial equality, tore up union control of hiring by setting quotas for minorities in construction.

We opposed the Philadelphia Plan, which, like all intervention by the capitalist government into the unions, was designed to weaken the labor movement. At the same time, we called for the unions to undertake special hiring and training programs to recruit blacks, women and others previously shut out of the trades. As Marxists, we fight for the independence of the labor movement from all capitalist political parties and state agencies. We oppose government meddling in the internal affairs of the unions on principle, including the many “corruption” investigations into unions like the NYC Carpenters, which is now run by government-imposed trustees. Likewise, we oppose the motion recently filed in federal court by oppositional “reformers” in the Carpenters union to freeze contract negotiations between the union and several employer associations until after union elections. Labor must clean its own house!

Today black workers in construction are concentrated in less-skilled jobs. This is palpable at labor rallies, where Laborers contingents are heavily black and immigrant while craft contingents are largely white. Black workers remain a militant backbone of organized labor and are critical to linking the power of the working class to the anger of the ghettos, where young men and women have only the barest hope of finding any kind of jobs and are subject to a daily regimen of racist police abuse and terror.

With the ongoing capitalist economic crisis threatening ever more workers with losing their jobs, benefits and homes, there must be a fight for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay to spread around the available work. The unions should demand a massive program of public works to rebuild the decaying infrastructure of New York and the rest of the country—the streets, the sewers, the bridges, the subway, schools and hospitals. This could help unite private- and public-sector unions together with the unemployed in a common struggle for jobs and quality public services.

It will not be easy to defeat the arrogant rulers’ drive against the unions. Tens of thousands of trade unionists and others turned out repeatedly in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year in defense of the state’s public employees unions which faced all-out assault by a Republican state government. But their desire to fight was diverted by the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy into a pathetic campaign to oust the Republican governor and legislators in favor of Democrats, who, from the White House to statehouses from New York to California, have led the drive to cripple the unions.

It will require the strength and solidarity of the working class to prevail against the capitalists’ attacks. For that, a new, class-struggle leadership of labor must be forged. This is an essential part of the fight to build a multiracial workers party whose purpose is not only to defend the working class against the menace of its own devastation but to seize the forces of production from the profit-bloated capitalist class through socialist revolution. Under a workers government, the productive capacity squandered by the capitalists will be massively developed as part of a planned economy to rebuild society and satisfy the needs of all.