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NYC Building Trades to Elite Developer: ‘Stop Wage Theft, Now!’

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Once again, building-trades workers wielding “Stop Wage Theft” signs protested outside Brookfield Properties’ Battery Park City offices Feb. 24, loudly demanding that the developer stop using “bad actors” as subcontractors on their nonunion jobs in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

“Brookfield Properties is awarding contracts to employers they know have committed wage theft and tax fraud, employers they know have been sued for stealing workers’ wages,” Ed McWilliams of the District Council of Carpenters told the about 200 people packing the sidewalk. “I’d like to see them go up to Central Booking. They’re ripping people off in the Bronx and Brooklyn.”

Brookfield has a project-labor agreement with the building trades to use union labor on its Manhattan jobs, but not in Brooklyn or the Bronx. Among what the unions call “construction sweatshops” at the company’s Greenpoint Landing jobs in Brooklyn are Top Shelf Electric, accused of cheating more than 20 immigrant workers out of several weeks’ pay in 2018; nonunion concrete contractor RNC; and U.S. Crane & Rigging, which was involved in accidents there earlier this month and at an unrelated nonunion job in Manhattan last October, and has long been the target of complaints about wage theft and lax safety standards. 

The general contractor, Consigli, according to Laborers Local 79, regularly hires SLG Construction, a “body shop” that specializes in recruiting workers recently released from prison and paying them minimum wage. 

The victims of wage theft in the construction industry, said McWilliams, are most commonly women, people of color, and undocumented immigrants. Those practices enable nonunion contractors to submit lower bids for jobs than union shops can, said Joe Scopo, organizing director for the Laborers Union’s Cement and Concrete Workers District Council.

“Brookfield Properties is one of the most active employers of union labor in New York City, having put more than $4.3 billion worth of construction work in place with unions — nearly 80% of all of the work we have done — over the past five years alone,” company spokesperson Andrew Brent responded in a statement to LaborPress. “That includes hundreds of millions of dollars of work in the Bronx and Brooklyn. We thoroughly check industry references and perform third-party integrity reviews of all contractors. Those we invite to bid for work are evaluated using a broad range of qualifications, including safety record, wage rates, and benefits offered to their workers, and we require that certified payrolls be submitted during the course of the project to verify that workers are paid properly.” 

“Brookfield has a value of nearly $600 billion, but they hire bad actors,” said Scopo. “Workers shouldn’t have to go to court to get their pay. If these jobs were union, the economy of New York would get a tremendous boost, and workers would be safe.”

Brookfield Properties’ parent company says it manages about $600 billion in assets worldwide, with $211 billion of that in its real-estate division, Brookfield Property Partners, which it describes as “one of the world’s largest investors in real estate.” Yahoo! Finance estimates that Brookfield Property Partners, based in Bermuda, owns about $88 billion in assets.

An array of five giant inflatable rats lined up on the curb facing the company’s offices, one with a mock-Rolex watch on its wrist. A sixth Scabby stood on the sidewalk across the street, as Scopo introduced a man named Jose, his face almost completely covered by an orange hoodie and red bandanna, who’d come to the rally because he’d been cheated out of pay on a nonunion job.

“Workers like him are not the problem,” Scopo declared. “He’s a good man.”

Unions should “defund Brookfield” by withdrawing pension-fund investments, said retired Carpenters member Brian Brady. 

“Why are we funding an organization like Brookfield with our money when they build nonunion?” he told LaborPress afterward. “They should give workers a decent wage. That’s what a union is about.”

Two wage-theft bills have been passed by one house of the state Legislature this year. One, sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Gournardes (D-Brooklyn), who spoke at the rally, would close what he called the “judicial loophole” that allows workers to claim wage theft only if part of their pay was stolen, but not if they were completely stiffed. The Senate passed it by a 51-12 vote Feb. 10, but the Assembly has not yet acted on it. 

The second, sponsored by Assemblymember Latoya Joyner (D-Bronx), would make general contractors on a job responsible for unpaid wages owed by their subcontractors. It passed by a 123-27 margin on Jan. 26.

“I can’t believe I have to say this in 2021. Wage theft is theft. Theft is a crime,” said Diana Florence, former head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s construction-fraud task force, who is now seeking the Democratic nomination for Manhattan DA. “Do the math and enforce the law.”

“Let’s take it back!” urged Carpenters member Anthony Madaio, quoting the rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine’s song “Guerrilla Radio.” “It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime. What better place than here? What better time than now?”

“They’re hurting the middle class. Unions built this city,” Ironworkers Local 46 member Michael Jackson told LaborPress. “This is not the last rally, because wage theft and corruption must end.”

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