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Organizing Nonunion Construction Workers Seen As Key To Halting Industry’s Race To The Bottom

New York, NY – In the ongoing struggle to rein in the construction industry’s race to the bottom and preserve good middle class jobs, New York City’s Building Trades have rallied against exploitive contractors and builders, while also reaching out to the nonunion workers being exploited. 

Ironworkers General Vice-President Jimmy Mahoney welcomes striking non-union construction workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard last year.

“The building trades have been successful in recruiting and organizing workers from the nonunion sector and it continues to be a top priority,” Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York President Gary LaBarbera told LaborPress. “There’s an overwhelming demand and certainly no shortage of nonunion workers who want to be unionized and secure a pathway to the middle class.”

Although challenging, organized labor’s ability to mobilize nonunion workers to help achieve workplace justice has succeeded in a number of sectors. The “Fight for $15” movement in the fast food industry is one example. SEIU 32bJ’s success winning hard-fought raises for workers at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports is another. 

“When we did the airport [workers] campaign, one of the things that really moved quickly in the organizing of that workforce was the willingness to have the non-union workers engage in strikes, engage in a public presence,” 32 BJ President Hector Figueroa recently told LaborPress. “They mobilized in large numbers, and I feel that the Trades are very effective at mobilizing their own membership and their base — but it will add to their power and will add to their argument, and their effectiveness, if they could mobilize non-union construction workers in large numbers.”

For nearly four years now, Eddie Jorge, an organizer with the union-backed New York Community Alliance for Worker Justice, has helped spearhead a site-by-site effort to encourage exploited nonunion construction workers to go on strike and join the ranks of organized labor.

There’s an overwhelming demand and certainly no shortage of nonunion workers who want to be unionized and secure a pathway to the middle class. – Gary LaBarbera, president, Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York

When Christian Mejia walked off his Bronx work site along with about 10 others in the fall of 2015, U.S. Crane & Rigging was paying the the 27-year-old a paltry $22 an hour, and ordering him to perform some of the most dangerous jobs on the building project without any formal training. 

Union members embrace Edgar Joshua Melendez after he walked off the job site at 111 W. 57th Street.

“There’s none of that,” Megia told LaborPress at the time. “They basically throw you out there blindfolded and you have to figure it out on your own.”

Last year, A dozen nonunion ironworkers helping to erect a 16-story office building inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard, went on strike citing dangerous working conditions, poor pay and lack of benefits, courtesy of Gilbane Building Co and FJM Ferro — two of the most powerful builders in the industry. 

And two years ago, nonunion construction worker Edgar Johsua Melendez walked off his job site at 111 West 57th Street after finally growing fed up with all of the safety violations he experienced on the job. 

“I’ve seen other guys get hurt,” Melendez told LaborPress. “I’ve seen cranes tip over and welding machines blow up in our main yard in the Bronx.”

Other nonunion construction workers have decided to go and strike and join with the union after facing a litany of outrageous abuses on the job ranging from sexual assault to battery. 

Many exploited workers, however, remain reluctant to strike or speak out due to their immigration status. 

“These companies keep getting bigger and the reason they’re getting bigger is because they’re taking advantage of the workers’ situation,” Jorge told LaborPress this week. 

The organizer remains hopeful that efforts to unionize non-union construction workers, especially in the affordable housing industry, will be more successful.

“We’re definitely in recruitment mode,” he said. 

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