Yankees paid "professional protesters" Part 1, Bronx Beat, 04/03/95
You heard about these wannabe construction workers hired to rant and chant at public hearings where major developers (Steinbrenner, Ratner,etc) try to ram tax-subsidized mega-construction projects through the City Council. Who are these Positive Workforce, etc guys chanting for the stadium to be built on top of our public parkland? We have two articles that provide background and some disturbing information about how they are now linked to politics.
Hard hats fight for few jobs
By Drew Fellman and Leila Gorchev, Special Correspondents, Bronx Beat, April 3, 1995
The city expects competition for construction jobs to become more cut-throat as it prepares to spend far less on new building projects.
"It's kind of like rats in a cage. As the food gets scarcer, the violence gets worse," said Ken Holden, an aide to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Tension has already been building. Altercations between coalitions of construction workers are increasingly common. In a highly publicized Valentine's Day incident, members of the borough-based United Hispanic coalition clashed with members of Manhattan's Positive Work Force, a competing coaltion, at a Times Square construction site. Two men were shot and 15 people were arrested.
David Rodriguez, president of United Hispanic, is praised by his members for providing desperately needed work and promoting self-respect in a neighborhood riddled with poverty. He echoes the motto of Malcolm X, whose poster hangs behind his desk: "By any means necessary." He keeps a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his briefcase.
Some members have union books; others have rap sheets. "I've yet to see evidence of a coalition not engaging in extortion," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruth Nordenberg, who unsuccessfully prosecuted Rodriguez on extortion charges in 1993. She said coalitions use threats and violence to force contractors to hire people they don't want and don't need.
"We are not a gang!" Rodriguez, 38, shouted in a scratchy voice at the start of recent weekly meeting. "We are a nonprofit organization!"
He agrees that most of the 40 construction coalitions in the city are extortionists and "give United Hispanic a bad name."
He said his coalition has the highest membership in the borough and dues are among the lowest in the city. For every week they work, members pay $15 if they earn over $200 and $10 if they earn less than that. If they don't work, they don't pay dues. He said about 150 of his 400 members work during any given week.
At the meeting in Morrisania, Rodriguez sought to refocus the anger of his members, several of whom described being attacked at Times Square. United Hispanic member Andrew Harris, 41, said he was unable to defend himself against the other coalition's firepower. "We only have sticks and stuff," he said.
Bronx City Councilman Jose Rivera said minority laborers are frustrated by a lack of job opportunities and countered that discrimination, too, is a form of corruption. "Coalitions exist because it's a tightly controlled industry," he said. "There are people who feel like the only way they can get a good job is to put pressure."
Sidney Quick has two felony convictions. Finding jobs through United Hispanic, he said, "is the only hope I have."
Holden said that construction unions have made great strides by bringing women and minorities into their ranks, offsetting the industry's reputation as the domain of white men.
While minority representation in construction has increased, the progress is not enough, Rivera said. "On the surface it no longer looks closed in the Bronx, but if you go to midtown you see that 99 percent of the workers are not black and Latino."
Rivera founded the United Tremont Trades coalition in the early 1970's and eventually transformed the group into a political base.
To demand employment, some coalitions descend by the dozens on a job site. "Construction is not a training ground for Boy Scouts," Rivera said. "It's a tough industry, a rough industry."
Steve Hernandez, a contractor, said coalitions usually request a job or two. If none exist, some coalitions are patient and check back later, others demand payoffs to avoid violence. Hernandez said the coalitions cruise the city like sharks following the scent of blood. "They can smell a job a mile away."
Rodriguez's nose is well trained and he roams freely throughout the Bronx and parts of Manhattan. Every day, he goes out to "shape" -- a union phrase meaning to look for work. Fifty United Hispanic members pile into a battered yellow school bus and pay visits to construction sites to inquire about work.
Rodriguez has been without his bus since it was impounded by the police after the Times Square melee. On a recent day, with a baseball bat in the backseat of his black Ford Bronco, he visited a construction site on East Arthur Avenue to look for jobs.
In the dank office of a gutted building, Rodriguez stared out the window, his back turned in frustration to the contractor. "I don't get high on alcohol or drugs," he said, reddening. "I get high putting people to work."
Rodriguez then told the contractor that if he didn't hire someone from United Hispanic, the coalition would shut down the site.
The contractor weighed the threat, fidgeted in his chair, and tried to laugh it off. He told Rodriguez that he understood, but had no job to offer. Three days later he found one.