By Bendix Anderson & William E. Nagel
December 6, 2010
Devon McLeod carefully brushed loose mortar from the bricks of the Woodside Houses in Queens – one of 334 public housing projects managed by the NYC Housing Authority. McLeod is a first-year apprentice “pointer, cleaner caulker” in Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers Local 1 and is learning the basics of exterior masonry restoration or PCC work. He takes free training classes at the BACIU’s International Masonry Institute in Long Island City and trains on-the-job with his current employer Town Masonry Corp.
Currently, McLeod not only repairs public housing, he lives in the Louis Armstrong Houses in Brooklyn. McLeod’s opportunity to join BAC Local 1 came about this year for two main reasons: first, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act resulted in a massive influx of federal money to repair NYCHA’s aging housing inventory; and second, NYCHA maintains a rule that at least 15 percent of a contractor’s employees on any NYCHA rehab project must be current residents of public housing. McLeod worked hard to become one of those 15%. “I always wanted to do construction,” he said. “It’s a career.”
Beginning in 2010 with the allocation of the federal stimulus money, NYCHA has embarked on an ambitious 5 year, $2.6 billion capital plan that includes over $350 million worth of brick and concrete restoration on its buildings throughout the 5 boroughs. It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of this work to BAC Local 1 – NYCHA consists of almost 655,000 residents, which, on their own, would make NYCHA the 20th largest city in the United States. And, NYCHA is all about bricks. In September 2010, roughly 200 BAC Local 1 members were at work on public housing rehabilitation projects throughout NYC.
Jeremiah Sullivan, BAC Local 1 President explained, “Ten years ago, many of our contractors didn’t want to go near NYCHA jobs and NYCHA seemed content to deal with a whole crew of cut-priced, fly-by-nights. With some improvements at NYCHA — including the NYC Building Trades’ Design Build Program that began several years ago — these jobs have gradually started to turn for us. Once we got our foot in the door, NYCHA’s leadership realized that union building trades members and contractors bring the kind of quality, safety and value that NYCHA needs to efficiently maintain its infrastructure. Of course, bringing in new apprentices during a downturn is tough. But, at a time when the commercial market is contracting and project after project is getting postponed or scaled back, bringing in some new apprentices from NYCHA maintains our contractor’s eligibility for NYCHA’s pool of work. Those NYCHA projects have allowed us to keep many of our existing members working.”
McLeod’s employer, Town Masonry Corp., is one of two contracting companies repairing the bricks at the Woodside Houses. These mid-rise buildings were completed in 1949 and built to last, with a 12-inch layer of brickwork on the exterior walls.
That brickwork needs some attention after more than 60 years in the weather. Every time rainwater freezes on wet brick, the water expands inside tiny cracks in the mortar, making those cracks larger. After decades of that process, the old mortar must be ground away to a depth of about one inch and replaced with new mortar.
Michael Barbera, Local 1’s PCC Field Representative for Queens examined a wall of newly repaired mortar at the Woodside Houses. “That’s good for another 30 years, at least,” he said.
As an apprentice, McLeod currently earns $23.66 an hour. That’s more than twice the $10 an hour that he used to earn during the real estate boom as a non-union worker stringing electrical and telephone wire in new Manhattan condominium projects.
McLeod became an apprentice Bricklayer after his mother found a Bricklayers advertisement online aimed at NYCHA residents. McLeod and about 100 others showed up to compete for the position with two written tests held at 8:30 a.m. in September and October at the Bricklayer’s training center in Long Island City.
“The line went all the way down the block,” McLeod said.
McLeod scored highly and was picked to complete a 12-week training course at the Bricklayers training facility in Bowie, Md. He also earned a certification card from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and two different certifications to work on suspended and supported scaffolding.
Now that he is an apprentice, McLeod’s training is just beginning. He still has to complete 144 hours of additional training a year until the four (4) years of his apprenticeship are finished and he finally becomes a journeyman pointer, cleaner & caulker. Jack Argila, BAC Local 1’s Secretary-Treasurer commented, “Historically this is what the our union has been about since its formation – ensuring a pathway to middle class success for those willing to work hard in this back-breaking industry. Dozens of our members reside in public housing right now and hundreds have lived in public housing at some point in their lives. It makes perfect sense that we are back in this sector of the business.”
In the meantime, the masonry restoration work on the massive brick structures that make up most of the 334 NYCHA projects will continue. By recruiting and training NYCHA residents to execute the kind of exceptional quality work that can come only from union tradesman, Local 1 hopes to continue to receive a steady flow of NYCHA restoration work through 2015 to benefit all its members.