NEW YORK, N.Y.—Over the last eight to ten years, nonunion contractors paying little more than minimum wage have made inroads into large-scale construction in Manhattan—and the #TakeItBack campaign, a coalition of several building-trades union locals, wants to turn that around.
“Every job we go to, it’s the same thing,” says Joe Scopo, organizing director for the Laborers Union’s Cement and Concrete Workers District Council 16. “Wage theft, safety violations, payroll-tax violations.”
Last month, Take It Back protested outside 111 W. 57th St., the job site where in October a wind-buffeted crane smashed into the building and sent pieces of aluminum and glass as big as 20 feet long plummeting to the ground. The 84-story “Billionaire’s Row” building is the tallest structure ever built in the city with nonunion labor.
Nonunion contractors, campaign organizers say, can underbid union contractors by cutting corners on safety and hiring workers who are in a weak position to object to low wages or getting shorted on pay—immigrants, many undocumented, and parolees recruited through “body shops,” who could be sent back to prison if they can’t hold a job.
“It’s all about the workers doing the same work that we do and getting exploited,” says Scopo.
On a job at 45 Commercial St. in Greenpoint, says District Council 16 organizer Mike Arena, one worker was getting only $14 an hour.
The Take It Back coalition includes locals from the Laborers, Bricklayers, and Insulators unions. The campaign, Scopo says, was born in early 2019, “to continue the labor movement” after the building-trades unions’ “Count Me In” campaign against developer The Related Companies’ use of nonunion labor at Hudson Yards ended with a deal that allowed some nonunion contractors on the project.
That symbolized those contractors’ expansion out of smaller projects into constructing large residential and commercial buildings. “No more five stories, no more ten stories,” says Arena.
The campaign finds jobs with “very shoddy contractors” by a mixture of research and word of mouth, says Scopo. “A lot of members call us. As organizers, we grid the city.”
That means visiting different job sites around the city and talking to workers on their lunch and coffee breaks, says Arena.
“Sometimes I go home with a tear in my eye, the way these workers are treated,” he says. “When they get hurt, they put them in a cab.”
The campaign’s successes, Scopo says, include working with New Immigrant Community Empowerment [NICE] to collect back wages owed more than 20 electrical workers on a Queens project. It also got workers to speak on an investors’ call at CIM, a Los Angeles-based private-equity firm that Take It Back has targeted for hiring contractors with a record of wage theft and fatal accidents at its 732-apartment luxury development in downtown Brooklyn.
“We’re going to continue to be in the face of what they do,” he says. “We hope we educate enough nonunion workers to rise up against greedy developers.”