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13,000 Carpenters Strike in Massachusetts

A work stoppage over COVID-19 safety issues

Brian Young's picture
Apr 06, 2020

Last week, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker shut down all non-essential work in the state to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, construction workers who are working on residential projects weren’t included in the order.

While some construction is essential, like those working at hospitals, other construction, like building luxury housing was also deemed essential. On Thursday, Governor Baker updated his order to require social-distancing protocols and announced a “zero-tolerance policy” for infected workers on the job. Sites not in compliance are instructed to “secure the site and pause construction.”

Of course, social distancing is hard to practice on a job site. The union provided video to NBC10 in Boston showing how unrealistic social distancing is on a job site, showing workers piling out of a work van and congregating near entrances of job sites. The nature of their work also makes it difficult to spread out. One worker told NBC10, "You're going to see more and more construction guys not take the risk of going to projects ... and not have the risk of bringing anything home to their families." The union also pointed out that the lack of PPE, including N95 masks, further puts their health and first responders' health at risk. They noted that the masks need to go to the doctors and nurses not to protecting construction workers who don’t need to work during the pandemic.

When questioned about why he was classifying residential construction as essential, Baker said Massachusetts “has a terrible housing shortage and not to continue to complete housing projects would be a big mistake.”

In response to Baker’s order keeping job sites open, the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters announced that they were directing all of their members to cease working until it is safe to do so. "It has become apparent that working on construction sites in Massachusetts is abnormally dangerous,” said North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Flynn in a statement to industry partners. “Continuing to work on construction sites poses an immediate threat of harm to the health and safety of my members and the public."

The Carpenters union directive does not apply to health facilities that their members are working on to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. While Baker is keeping construction open throughout the state, the cities of Boston, whose Mayor led the Boston Building Trades in the early 2010s, and Sommerville have shut down all non-emergency construction. The Massachusetts Building Trades Council is calling for a month-long ban on all non-emergency construction.

“The existing order from the state leaves too much work ongoing and what I would consider work that can wait. It’s a horror show,” said council President Francis Callahan, describing job sites where workers have no access to protective gear or ability to practice social distancing.

The state has already had 231 people die from COVID-19.

The carpenters' move comes as many building trade unions are questioning local governments' decisions to keep them working during the outbreak. In New York City, construction continued for two weeks after the Governor began instituting measures to keep non-essential workers at home. With NYC nearing its apex in cases, major projects like the JFK airport are still open and about 900 projects, including luxury housing in some of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, have received exemptions and been deemed essential. Washington State has also instituted a shutdown on much of their construction.

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