When Joe Scopo arrives at a construction site with a large inflatable rat, developers have learned that they are in for a tough fight.
As the director of organizing for Cement and Concrete Workers District Council 16, Scopo has made it his business to find non-union or open shop construction projects and publicly expose unsafe working conditions and labor law violations. When he targets a project, Scabby the rat pops up and Scopo and his team begin the process of talking to workers to document labor violations.
“What happens with the big rat is workers know exactly where you are and where to find you when they get exploited or when they don’t get that pay,” Scopo said.
Now after 25 years in the trades, and five years leading the union’s advocacy efforts, Scopo is planning to retire. He will be honored with the Organizer of the Year Award at LaborPress’ upcoming ceremony celebrating union apprentices.
As part of his job fighting back against non-union contractors and developers, Scopo has tended to focus on political targets: developments with federal, state or pension funding. But once he and his team of inspectors pick a construction site, their goal is to bring attention to the broader issue of wage theft and safety conditions in the construction industry.
As far as his role as political organizer, “It all started from 85 Jay Street,” a large luxury development that international developer the CIM Group began building in DUMBO around five years ago. Scopo teamed up with a coalition of construction trades unions to document how the nonunion contractors the developer had hired were racking up a wide range of labor violations.
A third generation member of the union, when Scopo got his start in the trades he said he “wasn’t the greatest worker in the world,” but he showed that he had a knack for keeping track of labor rules and fighting for workers’s rights, so he became a shop steward.
“When I became a shop steward, I fought for my workers tooth and nail. I’m not gonna let them work in unsafe conditions. And I got a reputation as the guy that isn’t gonna let your company get away with anything,” Scopo said.
As an organizer Scopo led a campaign called “#takeitback” that was aimed at supporting non-union workers rise up and demand that they get better treatment.
When Scopo and his team found out about non-union workers experiencing wage theft at the hands of a subcontractor, they would help them file cases with the state Department of Labor and work with their political allies to get that money back.
“My hardest task was to merge non-union and union in the same rallies where I had to show that my union is my top priority, but we have to support non-union because they’re doing the same work as us, and they shouldn’t be working unsafe,” Scopo told LaborPress.