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Brickwork On Their Own Block: Local 79 Recruits NYCHA Residents

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Arlene Sano Henry worked non-union construction jobs for 25 years before she got the opportunity to join Laborers Local 79 last July. She provides “everything bricklayers need”—bricks, cleanup, cement, she says. And she finds being a union member “lovely.” 

NYCHA residents: “The union is the best thing for anybody.”

On nonunion jobs, she made $14 an hour,” she says. In the union, she makes $40. “Before, I had to worry about how I was going to pay my rent. Now, I know if I show up, I get my pay,” she says. “I can pay for shoes for my child”—who, as a 5’8” tall 12-year-old, “takes the same size as a grown man.”

Sano Henry, who lives in the Grant Houses on Harlem’s western edge, was able to join Local 79 through its program of recruiting public-housing residents. City regulations called Section 3 require 15% of workers on New York City Housing Authority construction jobs to be NYCHA residents—so Local 79 has used that to bring more than 300 people into the union over the past 15 years.

“What makes it unique is that we’re not only recruiting NYCHA residents, but we’re bringing them straight in as journeypeople,” says Lavon Chambers, assistant director of the Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, the Laborers International Union’s alliance with contractors to promote and train union labor in the construction industry. 

What makes it unique is that we’re not only recruiting NYCHA residents, but we’re bringing them straight in as journeypeople. — Lavon Chambers, Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust

The union finds prospective members through about 30 or so community organizations it works with, he says. They include the Staten Island NAACP, the St. Nick’s Alliance in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, Good Old Lower East Side, and the Ocean Bay Resident Council in Rockaway. 

Contractors on NYCHA jobs ask Local 79 to send them workers, and the union then asks the community groups to send them possible recruits, says Local 79 organizer Justice Favor. Applicants must be listed on a NYCHA apartment lease, pass a drug test, and have their 10-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety-training certificate. Contractors can also sponsor workers directly, as long as they promise they will hire them.

Experience is a plus, says Favor, but not necessary. “I look for someone who understands what this job entails,” he says. “It’s a hard job, and you’re going to have to get up early and work in all kinds of weather.”

The future looks bright with a union job.

Nonmembers can take Local 79’s OSHA class and its 32-hour class for a scaffold certificate, he adds. The OSHA certificate is as basic as having a driver’s license, but the scaffolding certificate is often necessary for jobs.

Whatever certificates they need, says Chambers, they “can be on the job within days.” The union continues to give them orientation and mentorship, he adds.

Once on a job, Favor says, they get temporary union books good for 30 days. If they bring in two pay stubs showing they worked at least 24 hours that week, they get sworn in and buy a regular union book.

The program is “close to my heart,” says Favor, who grew up in the Hammels Houses in Rockaway and was the first union member in his family. “It’s amazing how people respond—they’ve gotten into the local, they’re receiving a paycheck, they’ve got health insurance.”

Sano Henry came to the program through the Harlem group WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Its contact there knew who she was because she’d been Section 3 worker about 15 years ago. “The man was looking for me for a long time,” she says. She officially joined Local 79 on her birthday.

“That was a good present,” she recalls.

The only problem she sees in the program is that not enough NYCHA residents know about it. “Any project I go to, I see young boys 18 and over, I school them. I give them the number to get on the Section 3 list,” she says. “The union is the best thing for anybody.”

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