Union Work vs the Gig Economy
The New York Times reports on non-profits helping ex-cons find work with non-union contractors
The New York Times takes a look at the controversial pipeline that involves non-profits funneling ex-cons into non-union construction jobs. Of course, these new workers are helping the developers undercut union tradesmen in New York City. Find out more about this controversial program below.
After his second stint in prison — two years on possession of drugs with intent to sell — Andre Chesson needed a job.
It had been around a decade since Mr. Chesson had blown an opportunity with Local 79, New York’s biggest laborers’ union. But his parole officer had a suggestion for how to get a second chance in the field — enrolling at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a nonprofit that helps ex-convicts join the work force.
CEO connected Mr. Chesson to Trade Off Construction Services, a nonunion firm. He was taken aback by the offer he received: $15 an hour and no benefits. Credentialed workers of Local 79, called journeymen, can make up to $69 an hour with benefits.
“I really had to lower my standards,” Mr. Chesson said.
After a few months, he got a raise. Mr. Chesson, now 38, said he still doesn’t receive health insurance or vacation pay, but he’s proud to earn $17.50 an hour. “What I did in six months at Trade Off — I’m with people, I know people, it took them three years. I’m not trying to sit here cocky, but I worked for that.”
Whether Mr. Chesson has been supported or exploited is at the center of a brewing fight between nonprofits like CEO, nonunion firms and major developers against New York’s influential but embattled construction unions. At stake is the future of an industry worth $84 billion.
Re-entry nonprofits like CEO, which find jobs for people coming out of prison, have in recent years helped fuel the rise of nonunion companies like Trade Off. These companies provide construction workers who do clean up and heavy lifting for major building projects around the city.
CEO would consider Mr. Chesson a success story. By adjusting his expectations and embracing work, Mr. Chesson went from a repeat offender with a risk of recidivism to a law-abiding member of society with a steady job.
Unions have reason to be concerned. Membership in the Building and Construction Trades Council, a union umbrella group, has slid from around 250,000 in New York City in the 1980s to about 100,000 today.
After controlling the industry for decades, unions now receive only 20 percent of permits for new private construction and renovation jobs in the city, according to Brian Sampson, president of the New York chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a nonunion trade association.
Representatives of the building trades — carpenters, bricklayers and plumbers, among other workers — counter these figures by saying their members are still employed on the largest public projects and private developments.
The conflict has been playing out in the ongoing Hudson Yards project, often described as the biggest private development in the city since Rockefeller Center. The group behind it, Related Companies, traditionally used union workers almost exclusively. It’s just the kind of project the building trades depends on.
Initially, unions supplied nearly all the construction workers for Hudson Yards. But a feud arose between late 2017 and early 2018, when Related accused the building trades of violating labor agreements, while Local 79 and other unions learned that Related would be expanding its use of nonunion firms like Trade Off.
Trade Off is the “poster child of exploitation,” said Mike Hellstrom, president of the Mason Tenders District Council, which oversees Local 79. In 2017 and 2018, a Local 79 campaign to organize workers at Trade Off helped bring to light allegations of sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions.
This development helped to spur on the building trades’ fiery protests against Related last year. During one rally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke glowingly of the building trades and workers chanted, “We just punched Related in the face.”