Protesters and elected officials rallied last Friday in Downtown to decry the use of non-union labor in the construction of twin hotels.
“We don’t need to rezone Brooklyn for high-rises if their builders are going to be given substandard benefits, wages, and safety conditions,” said state Sen. Marty Connor (D–Brooklyn Heights) to hundreds of union workers at the corner of Duffield and Willoughby streets.
Laborers at the dusty, boarded-off patch of land, where the $48-million, twin 33-story hotels are being built by workers earning lower wages and fewer benefits than their unionized counterparts.
But it wasn’t all just dollars and cents to the protesters, who rattled off job-safety statistics like a baseball fan talking about A-Rod.
One cited this chilling stat from the federal Department of Labor: Of 29 construction workers who died on the job in New York City in 2006, 24 were non-unionized workers.
Unions hold work-safety classes every quarter — and many believe that such instruction prevents deaths and injuries.
“Safety is the first thing they teach you,” said Walter Cole, a four-year member of the Carpenters Union. “And I’ve worked with non-union guys who never took safety training, and they were dangerous.”
And if a work site is, indeed, dangerous, non-union workers — many of whom are illegal or undocumented immigrants — have little recourse, said Jonathan Bennett of the New York Committee of Occupational Safety and Health.
“The law says you can’t discipline workers for complaining about safety issues, but there is no mechanism to enforce that,” said Bennett.
Assemblyman Peter Abbate focused not on safety, but on the supposedly substandard work being done by non-union workers.
“In a couple of years the floors in the Sheraton will be warped and when you turn on the faucet, the lights will go on,” said Abbate (D–Dyker Heights). Laughter among protesters ensued.
At the core of the crowd’s fury was John Lam, the developer of the project, which calls for a Sheraton and one of Starwood’s trendy “Aloft” hotels at the corner of Duffield and Willoughby streets. Together, the hotels will have 500 rooms.
Lam was not at the rally — where one protester clutched a sign reading, “John Lam = Slave Driver” — and did not return calls for comment.
Despite all the much-discussed benefits of union membership, there are several reasons why many construction workers remain non-unionized.
For one, it’s hard to get into a union.
“They don’t just let anybody in, and sometimes it takes years,” said construction worker at the Sheraton site who did not want his name published.
The man also complained about union dues. “They shouldn’t take [dues] out of your salary — that’s extortion,” he added.
He also objected to the protesters contention that non-union workers do shoddy work.
“They think that because we are black or foreign that we don’t have degrees or training,” he said.
The use of non-union labor is not limited to the Sheraton/Starwood projects. Non-union workers are building virtually all of the luxury towers that are transforming Downtown Brooklyn into a mini-Manhattan — where the use of non-union labor in big projects is virtually unheard of, thanks to union clout.
But one expert said that as more attention is paid to Brooklyn, that will change.
“If you can justify $700,000 for one-bedrooms condos, you can justify fair wages for your employees building it,” said John Young, a lawyer specializing in worker’s rights specialist.