New York, NY – Two more construction workers died on the job site this week — one union, the other non-union — and it
didn’t take long for opponents of new legislation aimed at enhancing worker safety to seize upon the twin tragedies in a cynical attempt to negate the important distinctions found on the competing worksites — saying “accidents and deaths can happen to anyone.” But even if you buy that argument, here’s why non-union workers still suffer more.
In the next few days, the New York City Council is expected to vote on Intro. 1447 — a bill drafted in direct response to the more than 30 workers who have died on New York City construction sites in only the last couple of years — the overwhelming majority of them on non-union developments.
Left with little wiggle room in the face of such grim figures, opponents of Intro. 1447 have started to challenge the accuracy of the stats themselves — and this week’s horrific tragedies at 161 Maiden Lane and 400 West 33rd Street respectively, are only giving the developer-friendly factions more fodder to fuel their dubious claims.
“What happened today further reinforces our point that safety is inclusive and accidents and deaths can happen to anyone,” Empire State Chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors President Brian Sampson immediately said after this week’s deaths.
Gary LaBarbera, head of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, issued a statement following the death of an IBEW Local 3 journeyman at the West 33rd Street site on Thursday saying, “Construction is one of the most dangerous industries in New York City and even the best trained workers are not immune to accidents. We must end this epidemic and come together as a city to ensure that we do everything in our power to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities for the men and women who are building our skyline.”
But on Friday night, at a special ceremony and panel discussion honoring 35 years of women in the FDNY, IBEW Local 3 member Erin Sullivan drew a distinction between construction worker deaths occurring on union and non-union job sites that extends beyond even the grave.
“When you think about the word, ‘union’ — I think there are three families [a third worker was also severely injured] whose lives were drastically changed yesterday,” Sullivan said. “But one of them — severely. I know that my Local 3 brother’s family will be able to grieve the loss of their father, their son, their brother. And they’re not going to have the extra burden of worrying about, “Am I going to foreclose on my house? Are my kids going to go to school? What’s going to happen? The non-union guy’s family is devastated; if there was any money in the bank to even burry him.”
Non-union construction worker Juan Chonillo, 36, died on Thursday morning after falling 29 stories to the street below at 161 Maiden Lane. Like so many other non-union construction workers who have died on the job over the last 18 to 24 months — the father of five from Ecuador was a Latino immigrant who came to New York City hoping to earn a better living for his family.
Without union representation, struggling immigrant workers not only have to contend with lower wages and little if any benefits, they are also often too afraid to speak out when they are being driven too hard or pushed to cut corners to “get the job done.”
Prior to challenging figures showing the overwhelming majority of construction worker deaths are occurring on non-union
job sites — opponents of increased safety training were fond of claiming Intro. 1447, if enacted, would rob minority workers of opportunities to work in the building and construction trades.
This past summer, at a rally protesting non-union construction, that kind of rhetoric prompted Laborers Local 79 Field Representative Justice Favor to shoot back, “Yeah, you are providing them opportunity — a one-way ticket to the gravesite.”
Construction site deaths, perhaps, cannot be completely eliminated through enhanced safety measures, but workers need all the support they can get, if and when, the worst happens.
“Just like I stand in solidarity with my brothers, my brothers stand in solidarity with me,” Sullivan added. “It was tough day today going into work, and that doesn’t have a gender.”