Muscling in on construction jobs; private minority unions
by Elizabeth Kadetsky in The Nation, July 13, 1992
Hector Ocasio's voice pierces the mist on this bleak winter morning. A tableau of crumbling South Bronx brownstones spreads out in front of him as he confronts a band of immigrant construction workers, a thin veneer of plaster dust accentuating the whiteness of their faces. The immigrants brandish their tools, protecting jobs.
"I want my people on this job, that's all I want," Ocasio rants to a shivering construction supervisor. "You bring these guys from Long Island, from Portugal, you take money from the community and send it to some other country where they don't even speak English? What do we want?" Flanking Ocasio are forty-five guys - burly guys with hammers, black and Latino. "We don't want to kill and rob:" they respond in thundering unison. "All we want is a motherfucking job."
"Heyheyhey. We don't want no trouble:" the super says with fluttering hands and shaky breath. "All you want is for one guy? Send a guy tomorrow; well put a guy on. O.K.?"
Ocasio smooths his black hair as his partner, Tiger, leads the troop to a decrepit school bus emblazoned with the name United Hispanic Construction Workers. Beneath the name and stitched to members' company jackets is Malcolm X's slogan: "By Any Means Necessary."
"You gotta threaten them a little:" one member explains as we approach the bus, "or else you won't get a thing."
This school bus is one of close to forty like it that prowl low-income New York City neighborhoods in search of construction sites. The buses belong to minority groups, known as "coalitions:" that secure jobs with little more than a threatening demeanor and the argument that workers from the neighborhood deserve work on local construction sites - home to New York's only low-skill jobs that pay $ 30,000 or more a year. During a cyclical bust in which many of the city's construction unions claim 50 percent unemployment, competition for construction jobs is fierce to the point of violence. And, in an era when the loss of New York's manufacturing base has pushed uneducated workers into a shrinking number of unskilled industries, construction alone has maintained its share of jobs. That anomaly might help explain why foisting unwanted and often unskilled workers into construction jobs has become a violent affair. Coalitions were involved in 542 disruptions at construction sites in 1991 and have been the object of four full-scale government investigations into fraud, extortion and murder over the past decade.
Critics slam the coalitions as anything from "two-bit crumb bums who don't give a damn about civil rights reform" (an organized-crime investigator) to "a bunch of dope fiends who get paid $ 5 an hour to ride around in a bus all day" (a coalition leader speaking about a rival group) to "minorities just fighting other minorities" (a civil rights activist) to "a new type of mafia" (a contractor). But in the face of insidious racism in the construction industry, it's not government that's getting construction jobs for people of color, and it's certainly not New York's ethnic unions - it's coalitions. "Without the coalitions," says one job super for a major New York City construction company, "there wouldn't be any minorities in this industry."
Alfonso (Lucky) Rivera came to coalition work in 1972, after a representative of the mason tenders' union handed him a list of 200 construction sites and told him to find a job. Once Rivera had a job, the rep said, they'd let him in the union. "If I would've stayed with them I'd probably be on the corner homeless somewhere," says Rivera. He found nothing until he joined Black and Latin Economic Survival, a South Bronx coalition that now claims to have placed a total of 25,000 construction workers. Rivera eventually split from that group and founded his own, Positive Workforce (P.W.), out of an East Harlem storefront. He presides over a membership of 300 mostly young Latino men who, on this afternoon in Positive HQ, heed Rivera's orders to fetch statistics, serve soft drinks or quit smoking in the office. Rivera wears a red headband and loose fatigues tucked into combat boots A la Che Guevara. Among the objects surrounding him is a publicly displayed "shape board," which lists every member of the group in order of who's been riding the bus longest and, therefore, gets the next job. That is the kind of list minorities and dissidents within the notoriously corrupt construction unions have been unsuccessfully demanding for years; Local 17 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are both fending off appeals to the National Labor Relations Board from members who claim there is no list, only a corrupt system of favoritism.
Rivera runs an ersatz union. P.W. members pay $ 15-a-week dues - almost double the carpenters' dues, but in the end about the same since P.W. members pay only during the approximately two weeks a month they work. As in many unions, you have to know someone to get into P.W., though that doesn't keep 30 percent of its members from having prison records. And like the union locals, P.W. summons its strength from an intense and even sectarian ethnic identification. Rivera looks out for Puerto Ricans. "I would like to get more jobs for my guys," he says in explanation of an incident last summer that sent thirty-five workers to jail; a confrontation with the rival Black Economic Survival at a Staten Island construction site took on the character of a gang war between ethnic groups. "I don't blame Italians for doing what they do for their people, or the Irish for theirs. You got all kinds of racists, black racists, Spanish racists. I don't blame the unions. We're just playing the game the same way the unions have been doing it."
At Rivera's side, P.W. members sound like initiates paying tribute to their patriarch. "Lucky made me a man," says Martin, a round-faced 24-year-old chewing on a Tootsie Roll. "I was caught up in the oyster - hustling, dealing drugs. If it wasn't for Lucky I'd probably be in jail."
Mostly, the members applaud their newfound status as middle-class Americans. Many have even moved to the suburbs. "We have bank accounts, credit cards," Martin says. "We could never have done this alone."
For Lucky Rivera's proteges, that unique access to $ 30,000-a-year work outweighs the hazards of riding with a coalition. Death has been a distinct possibility since Positive member Rene Olmo met his at a South Bronx construction site in 1990. The group faced off against resentful Jamaican construction workers, one of whom pulled a gun.
Although he doesn't implicate Positive Workforce, the Manhattan D.a:s chief of investigations, Michael Cherkasky, says corruption in coalitions ranges from petty exploitation of workers to pervasive extortion victimizing "the highest level of general contractors." A 1982 mayoral study, Problems of Discrimination and Extortion in the Building Trades, reported that coalitions commonly extract "no show" positions paying $ 500 a week; Cherkasky suggests that over the past decade the price has risen to as much as $ 2,000. In 1989 the head of a Brooklyn-based coalition, United Tremont Trade, was convicted of using false Social Security numbers to cover up no-show jobs, and last year a leader of the Black and Puerto Rican Coalition pleaded guilty to the same charge.
The Mafia casts a shadow on every corner of New York's construction industry, and coalitions are not immune. In the 1981 Lilrex mob trial Black Economic Survival leader Moses Harris admitted that Vinnie (The Fatman) DiNapoli, a gangster who controlled the sheetrock industry, paid him $ 3,000 to keep away from his jobs; records from DiNapoli's 1981 federal trial show his companies regularly hired coalitions as "protection," paying out a total of $ 150,000. United Hispanic operates out of a storefront owned by an organization run by Father Gigi Gigante, a South Bronx priest, social worker and brother of convicted mobster Vinnie (The Chin) Gigante. A Brooklyn group, Akbar Community Service, has been linked to Salvatore (Sammy Bull) Gravano, John Gotti's disaffected underboss.
Not surprisingly, the spoils of such corruption feed a few hungry leaders and not necessarily their community-based work force. It is leaders and not workers who offset the rotting South Bronx streetscape outside, say, Black and Latin Economic Survival by driving up in BMWs and Jaguars. While the better coalitions secure union-scale work for their members, others exploit their workers as brazenly as they shake down contractors. Linda Hampton joined the South Bronx coalition United We Stand last summer after meeting its leader, Cutty Cunningham. "I've been through hell with that group," she says. "It's (United You Stand Alone,' and when you go out with them, it's (United We Stand Around:'" After riding the bus every day for more than a month, she was offered a position rehabilitating an abandoned Harlem tenement for $ 50 a day. It was better than the welfare she was on, so Hampton joined a ragtag crew of untrained workers and set about demolishing the building - by hand. There were no floor supports, no lights and no tools. "My friend had a bed-post and I had a hammer," she says. Hampton's salary was eventually skimmed down to $ 150 for her week's. labor.
Coalitions first materialized in the 1960s, when New York's sweeping urban renewal brought dozens of construction projects to the ghettos and alerted black and Latino radicals to the white face of the construction industry. Neighborhood-based coalitions began shutting down building sites by strong-arming workers, thus extracting jobs from contractors who stood to lose thousands of dollars for every fifteen minutes of lost time. White construction workers have fought this integration since 1963, when black pickets protesting the all-white construction crew at Harlem Hospital touched off racial clashes at construction sites throughout the city.
Although coalition-related violence today often engulfs splinter groups brawling among themselves, old-fashioned, black-white tension remains at a high pitch. "I keep my hammer close by," explains John, a white, Westchester-born member of Local 17 of the carpenters' union, whose connections got Him work at the height of the recession despite never having attended a union apprenticeship program. John fears losing his job to minority workers. Joey, a concrete worker, is unaware of how difficult it can be to join a union, let alone gain union employment. He wants to see coalition members get jobs the "hard" way. "A white guy gets on a job he's gotta go through the union, he's gotta go through a training program," complains. "If you're black all you gotta do is get on a bus and you've got a job." As one job supervisor aptly observes of coalitions' effect on white workers. "It's like invading people's houses."
The home is a fitting metaphor for an industry that has operated on the basis of family ties and ethnic cohesiveness since the nineteenth century. In New York, construction-union locals go by nationalities as well as numbers: There are Italian, Irish and Jewish locals in the carpenters' union, their leaders descending from old dynasties. The insider mentality might explain how during the 1980s, during the largest construction boom in New York City since the 1950s, black employment in the industry actually decreased almost 15 percent as unions imported white workers from out of state and even out of the country to fill excess jobs.
Many construction unions now operate under court orders to boost minority enrollment in apprenticeship programs - the outcome of forty years of bitterly resisted legal challenges in the case of Local 28 of the plumbers' union. But the percentage of minority apprentices shrank in the 1980s, and these who entered training programs overwhelmingly dropped out in the face of five-year curriculums that many critics deplore as unnecessarily long. In 1986 a total of 140 minorities completed construction apprentice programs in New York City; another 130 dropped out. Not that graduating into a union even guarantees employment: Testifying at 1990 hearings before the New York City Commission on Human Rights on discrimination in the construction industry, female and minority union members told of sitting endlessly on benches at hiring halls while white male workers returned from jobs and strolled right back out to work. Jim McNamara, a former investigator with the Labor Department, believes only 5 percent of active construction workers even go through union apprenticeship programs.
"People get work because there's a relationship," says Dan Gilroy, a union carpenter who is an editor of "Hard Hat News," a reformist newsletter. "The union hall in many unions is there to help families and friends get employment; anyone who's not a member of that group has a hard time."
Many locals go so far as to institutionalize father-to-son inheritance, even though a 1967 court decision against a Louisiana asbestos workers' local declared the practice illegal. Those locals accept only newcomers whom members refer, and members can recommend just one person in a lifetime. "Over half of our members are unemployed, so we're not gonna have nothing for maybe ten or twelve years," a clerk at Local 46 of the Metallic Lathers' Union tells me when I ask about work. "And besides," she says with a shrug, "you have to be sponsored by someone who's in the union who hasn't sponsored anybody else in his whole life."
Ironically, that exclusivity is precisely what has allowed the minority coalitions to thrive. New York City is home to a massive nonunion construction industry. Unlike the unions, open-shop companies have welcomed the minority work force - and its job services, the coalitions. But these contractors, like Linda Hampton's, often skimp on safety equipment and illegally undercut the union-scale wages required on government projects by the federal Davis-Bacon Act and the state's Labor Law 220. By paying as low as $ 4 an hour, they're able to underbid union contractors. Roy O'Kane of the carpenters' union has even suggested slashing his union's pay scale just to compete.
The explosion of nonunion work so distresses the carpenters' union that it sends workers from its massively unemployed ranks to picket nonunion sites. A carpenters' union picket consisting entirely of unemployed members of color illustrates organized labor's neglect of minorities: By ignoring the expanding minority work force, the unions have undercut their one legitimate source of power - controlling employers' access to labor. "This is the only way the union gives us some work, if we picket," says one sandwich-boarded protester, a man I'll call Thurston, who hasn't had a job in six months. "But we're not getting work, we're paying our dues, and the union keeps us out of work 'cause we're minority. I feel like cracking some heads."
Workers need legitimate organizations representing them in negotiations with legitimate companies, but in the absence of both, shady labor groups and substandard contractors will victimize them. Union reformers, civil rights activists and even the leaders of some union internationals recognize that the unions must welcome these workers before the tinderbox explodes. But decades of intransigence in the New York City locals underscore that they won't budge without government force.
The Dinkins administration, so lauded as the great black hope when it won power in 1989, has done nothing to resolve the problem. Two months of hearings before the Commission on Human Rights documented union discrimination so well that Commissioner Philip Rivera called Tommy Van Arsdale, head of the electrical workers' Local 3, a "bigot" to his face. But the commission's long-awaited recommendations have failed to. materialize as the budget crisis has exposed the agency's priorities. Numerous proposals from groups ranging from the Black Workers-Contractors Association to the Association for Union Democracy go nowhere: A city-run minority hiring hall could enable workers to bypass both the unions and the coalitions; a pending City Council bill could set aside city jobs for city residents; greater union surveillance could improve the treatment of women and minorities; dollars for-.housing could create construction jobs for everyone; and improved training in the city's vocational high schools could graduate skilled construction workers independent of the unions' apprenticeship programs.
Meanwhile, the city continues to award contracts to legitimate contractors that discriminate against minorities - and to illegitimate ones that exploit them. And it is unwilling to take on the unions, a ripe source of campaign funds and votes. A random scan of Dinkins's 1989 campaign records shows an up-to-the-limit contribution from the New York City District Council of Carpenters as well as lesser sums from other unions, including Local 3 of the electrical workers, the subject of twenty-three discrimination suits with the Human Rights Commission.
"This summer's gonna be hot and heavy," says a man I'll call Joseph, a job supervisor for a major New York City contractor who found his way into the construction industry through Harlem Fight Back, one of the few coalitions whose roots reach back to the civil rights movement and whose commitment to reform endures. Joseph coordinates hiring at a large job site in the Bronx, something that demands more and more of his time as the coalitions storming his gates become more desperate every year. "We need to put all the coalitions together so they don't have to squabble," he says. "And if you give a fair share of work to minorities it will cut down the power of the coalitions. But as long as money exists you're gonna have corruption. Ain't nothing gonna change - this is New York City. I envision this summer to be hell."