New York, NY – About 50 nonunion workers, students, members of community groups, sympathetic union laborers, and supporters gathered across the street from the Jewish Theological Seminary on Thursday, October 18, jeering a Gilbane Construction subcontractor and demanding pay hikes and benefits.
Protesters say SLG – the Gilbane subcontractor working the JTS site – should stand for “Slave Labor Gang” because it hires nonunion or so-called “open shop” workers at wages far below union standards. But the protestors say the issue is not about union or non-union, but about all workers’ rights.
Rasheem Knight, a foreman with SLG, says, “It’s slave labor, that’s for sure. We do perimeter netting, floor protection, you name it.”
Knight says he was making $17 an hour, which has gone up to $20, but, along with the other employees, many of whom earn far less than he, is demanding $40 an hour. A “pay package” Knight says would include benefits, such as healthcare and retirement pay – none of which workers now receive. Knight says the work is dangerous, a sentiment echoed by fellow worker Ernest Taylor, who also objects to the low pay.
“We work in high places, with chemicals, and dust,” he said. Previously Taylor had worked on another SLG site on the Lower East Side for one-and-a-half years, but when he transferred to the Seminary, his wages dropped from $20 an hour to $15.
Paris Simmons, an organizer with Laborers Local 79, said that “Gilbane came to New York from Boston with a mindset to undermine unions in New York,” where laws don’t protect unions as they do in Boston. Eddie Jorge, organizer with the New York Community Alliance for Workers Justice, said, “Regardless of whether a worker is union or not, they should get better pay. We need to pass better laws.”
Regardless of whether a worker is union or not, they should get better pay. We need to pass better laws. — Eddie Jorge, NY Community Alliance for Workers Justice
Michael Negron is an SLG worker who presented a petition for higher wages and benefits to the company – and was retaliated against.
“When we presented the petition – it was like a joke to them,” Negron said. Not only did the company then go out and hire 30 new workers who had not signed the petition, they then repeatedly moved Negron, who works around dust, debris, garbage, does heavy lifting and traffic flagging, from site to site.
SLG workers also charge they are being exploited because some were formerly incarcerated. When one SLG worker pointed out that workers at McDonald’s will soon be making more than he does – he was reportedly told that, based on his record, McDonald’s wouldn’t hire him.
An alumnus of the Seminary who was at the protest, Aryeh Bernstein, told LaborPress, “Since I first heard about [these practices] I was pretty appalled. Money people and corporate finance people on the Board just steamrolled over [these workers]. The Torah tells you, you have to rebuke your neighbor when they are doing wrong. Jewish Theological Seminary, I rebuke you!”