NEW YORK, N.Y.—The “Billionaires’ Row” building where a spinning crane knocked large chunks of metal and glass onto the street below Oct. 29 is the tallest structure ever built in the city with nonunion labor—and the accident was a sign that the developer was cutting corners, Joe Scopo, organizing director for the Laborers Union’s Cement and Concrete Workers District Council, told a rally at the site Nov. 9.
“The nonunion sector should no longer be allowed to build jobs over ten stories on New York City, because they can’t handle it,” Scopo told about 30 building-trades union members assembled under a scaffold in front of 111 West 57th St. “We don’t cut corners.”
On Oct. 29, with the city buffeted by rain and wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour from the Hurricane Zeta storm system, the tower crane began “weathervaning,” spinning freely, and a ball at the end of a cable slammed into the building’s upper floors. The impact sent pieces of aluminum and glass as big as 20 feet long plummeting to the ground as far as a block away.
However, no one was injured, according to the city Department of Buildings, which said that tower cranes are supposed to turn when it’s windy for safety reasons, and the crane is stable and was never in danger of collapsing.
“It was listed as a minor accident in the DoB report,” Scopo told LaborPress before the rally. “We’re saying it’s a major accident. “They didn’t tie anything down during the hurricane.”
The Department of Buildings on Oct. 30 issued a stop-work order to the contractor, JDS Construction Group, that prevents all construction above 75 feet, except for work necessary to keep the site in a safe condition. It said the order will remain in effect until JDS Construction provides acceptable plans to work safely and another inspection finds no safety issues.
The department’s Crane & Derricks Unit also issued a stop-work order to subcontractor U.S. Crane & Rigging, along with a violation for “failure to safeguard all persons and property affected by construction operations.” It said that because of that failure, “the ball & hook struck the building several times.”
The violation carries a $10,000 fine. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 17.
“New York City has the strongest crane regulation in the country in place to protect the public, and an incident like this is unacceptable,” department spokesperson Andrew Rudansky told LaborPress. “Our investigation into this incident is ongoing.”
JDS Construction Group, a subsidiary of JDS Development Group, broke ground for the 84-story, 1,428-foot building in early 2014. It was scheduled to be completed in 2017 and then in 2019. Some of the 60 apartments in what is advertised as “the most slender skyscraper in the world” have already sold, for an average price of almost $30 million. The three-floor penthouse went on the market in early September for $66 million, while the asking price for a three-bedroom duplex was $39.5 million.
JDS Development is arguably the city’s most avidly anti-union major developer. “Nonunion construction is here to stay,” owner Michael Stern told Crain’s in 2014, shortly before he announced his intention to build 111 West 57th St. entirely without union labor. He told Politico in 2015 that that having to pay for pensions and overtime meant that union jobs cost 20% to 30% more, and that unions were disingenuously using safety “to further their own political interests.”
“JDS is one of the worst actors in New York,” says Scopo. “We know the people on this building are not getting paid what they deserve.”
Union jobs cost more, he told the rally, but “they’re not lifting 1,000 pounds on the night of a hurricane.”
The 111 West 57th St. job has a long history of complaints about safety and labor-law violations. In 2018, a concrete contractor, Parkside Construction, was indicted on charges that it had cheated more than 500 workers, many undocumented immigrants, out of pay. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance called the company’s falsifying timesheets and evading workers’ compensation premiums a “business model” that enabled it to submit “fraudulently low” bids for jobs.
U.S. Crane and Rigging has a similar history. In 2014, organizer Eddie Jorge of the New York Community Alliance for Workers Justice told LaborPress that he’d been hearing stories about wage theft from workers at it and related companies for ten years. In 2016, rigger Edgar Joshua Melendez walked off the job at 111 West 57th St. to join the Ironworkers union at a protest outside the building. He told LaborPress then that he’d seen “holes in the walls from the crane operator slamming loads into the side of the building” and “guys working with their harnesses on — but they’re not tied off to anything.”
“I would have expected something like this a hundred years ago,” Laborers Local 79 organizer Tafadar Sourov told the rally. “The year is fucking 2020. The only reason you have spinning cranes is when greed runs rampant.”