NEW YORK, N.Y.—More than 100 construction workers returned to the sidewalk outside Brookfield Properties’ Battery Park City offices Sept. 23, accusing the developer of hiring nonunion contractors with records of wage theft.
“We want these jobs shut down immediately,” Joe Scopo, organizing director for the Laborers Union’s Cement and Concrete Workers District Council, told the crowd. “Wage fraud is a crime, and it needs to be punished.”
Specifically, they are charging that Top Shelf Electric, a contractor Brookfield has hired for the half-mile-long Greenpoint Landing development on the waterfront at Brooklyn’s northern tip, cheated more than 20 immigrant workers out of several weeks pay on two luxury-apartment jobs in the fall of 2018, one in Astoria and one on the Upper East Side.
Brookfield, fueled by $550 billion in assets managed by the investment firm it’s affiliated with, has become a major developer both in New York and nationally. Its projects include a 62-story tower adjacent to Hudson Yards where one-room apartments rent for $3,100 to $4,100 a month. The company has a project labor agreement covering Manhattan, Scopo told LaborPress, but is using nonunion contractors, including Top Shelf Electric, RNC, and the SLG “body shop,” at Greenpoint Landing, a 22-acre complex where it is building almost 2,000 of the 5,500 apartments planned.
“They’re hiring bad actors with a history of wage fraud,” Scopo says. Workers at 45 Commercial St., one of Brookfield’s buildings at Greenpoint Landing, have told union organizers, “some weeks I don’t get my pay, some weeks I don’t get overtime.” Scopo’s Facebook page includes a video of a worker at 15 Eagle St., another Brookfield job in the development, climbing outside the orange safety netting at the edge of the sixth floor without being tied in.
Brookfield’s press office did not respond to a voicemail message from LaborPress.
Many nonunion construction workers are undocumented immigrants, scared to complain about being exploited out of fear of being deported. Scopo drew applause when he called for a speedy path to citizenship for them, saying that helping all construction workers wasn’t just the union’s job, “it’s our moral obligation.”
“Many of them are nonunion, but they are willing to organize,” said Percy Lujan, a Peruvian-born member of Laborers Local 78, which represents workers removing asbestos, lead, and hazardous waste. “We’re a movement of workers. Stop the hatemongering.”
He told the crowd he had just come from a memorial marking the third anniversary of the death of Juan Chonillo, a 44-year-old worker killed when he fell 29 stories while moving a scaffolding unit at 161 Maiden Lane. SSC High Rise Inc., a contractor on the luxury-apartment tower, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and wage theft in 2018. It was fined $10,000.
John Carroll, an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 member, said nonunion jobs are often ethnically segregated. “They’ll put the Dominicans with the Dominicans, the Jamaicans with the Jamaicans,” he told LaborPress. “They put the workers with their own group rather than assimilating.”
He said nonunion workers he’s tried to organize have told him that some contractors have different pay scales for different ethnic groups.
Scopo said Brookfield is now hearing bids from both union and nonunion contractors for the second phase of Bankside, a seven-building complex by the Third Avenue Bridge in the South Bronx that will have more than 1,350 apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space. He told the crowd that the Laborers made concessions on wages to win the PLA for Manhattan, but nonunion contractors are “always able to go a little bit lower” on their bids.
“How can we win bids when they’re undercutting us by wage fraud, by safety violations, by payroll-tax fraud?” he told LaborPress after the rally.
“We have so many homeless shelters in the Bronx, and they’re building luxury housing. We need affordable housing,” said Jessica Coh, a third-year apprentice with Laborers Local 79 from the South Bronx now on a job building a homeless shelter. She described the Bankside project as a Hudson Yards-style development that “has its back to everything.”
According to Brookfield, 30% of the apartments in Bankside will be “affordable.” But the definition of “affordable” used by the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, which gives developers tax and zoning breaks for including below-market apartments in new buildings, stretches well above the city’s median household income of roughly $60,760—and further above the $25,730 median in the Bronx’s two southernmost community districts. In August, a lottery opened for 129 “affordable” units in a new luxury building a few blocks up Third Avenue from the Bankside site: Studios are going for $2,150 a month and two-bedroom apartments for $2,730, only slightly less than the market-rate units.
Building-trades workers said the protests at Brookfield will continue. “If you want to take food off my table and put caviar and champagne on yours, you’re going to keep seeing us,” Kristine Azzoli of Brooklyn, a member of Bricklayers Local 1PCC, which represents workers who restore old brickwork, shouted at the front of the building.