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Non-Union Ineptness Threatens US Economic Goals

Construction of an important microchip facility in Phoenix is staffed with open shop labor. Wage theft, injuries and death ensue.


Builders of the microchip manufacturing facility in Phoenix fought against a requirement to hire union contractors. They went open-shop and proceeded to establish a fatally dangerous work zone.

At Union-Built Matters our focus is on New York City construction, where non-union ineptness is having a deeply adverse effect on our buildings, our finances, and our people. But sometimes a story arises that demonstrates New York is not the only city suffering the bane of non-union shoddiness. 


This non-union story from Phoenix affects our country’s economic aspirations.


Part of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda is to help the US become a global player in the production of microchips – the minute circuitry units that enable modern products to perform complex tasks. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) constructs about 50% of the world’s chips, making that country by far the number one chip producer.


To get more engaged in this game the US struck a deal with TSMC that enables the chip maker to build them in America, providing jobs to American workers and unfettered access to the chips for American product makers. 


President Biden, meeting here with union members at the Fab21 work site, said the facility would be "built by union labor." That promise turns out to not be completely true.


Open-Shop: Big Mistake

Apple, Inc. joined the deal as an investor and construction of a $40 billion manufacturing facility was begun in Phoenix in March of 2021. Fab 21, as the site is called, was the largest construction project in the United States, covering 2 square miles and employing thousands of construction workers. 


Despite President Biden’s promise that the plant would be “built with union labor,” the developers of the site decided to go with “open-shop” labor, meaning they did not limit their team to union personnel.  


A reporter from the American Prospect, Lee Harris, visited the site and wrote about what he saw. He said, I “found that while some union contractors have secured jobs at Fab 21, most workers at the site are non-union. Many are international migrants and out-of-state workers.”

Fab 21 is "easily the most unsafe site I've ever walked on." 

– Union Representative who visited the site

If you’re familiar with non-union’s influence on big construction projects, then you know where this story is going: injuries, wage theft, death. Mr. Harris writes in his piece:


Injuries and safety violations are rampant, workers say, and trust in the jumble of contracting managers runs low. TSMC managers have allegedly stepped in to modify contractors’ work without warning. A worker with one of the staffing agencies hiring for the facility said she has repeatedly been paid less than her salary, and colleagues have been denied paychecks.


“It’s easily the most unsafe site I’ve ever walked on,” said Luke Kasper, a representative of the sheet metal workers union, known as SMART. “I’ve been in the trades 17 years … everyone that works at the hall and out there on-site agrees that it’s by far the most dangerous, unorganized job site they saw.”


The mistakes get worse

As if to prove that union man’s assessment of the site’s danger, two non-union men died working on the job, one by mishandling of a powerful machine and another by apparent suicide. In Mr. Harris’s story, a witness confided to him that “A non-union worker using an eight-inch grinder on metal pipe removed the guard. The grinder got away from him and cut his leg, slicing into his femoral artery, a major blood vessel.” That man died before emergency help could arrive.


A New York union metalworker familiar with the type of grinder mentioned in the incident told Union-Built Matters, “It’s tragic what happened to that worker. But on day one they train you to never mess with the safety elements of these tools. They are there for one reason. Removing that guard from that grinder was begging for an injury. No union person would ever do such a thing.”


Architects render of the site plans. While under construction, Fab 21 was the nation's largest active construction site, covering 2 square miles and employing thousands of workers.

The two non-union deaths have not been recorded by the Arizona Department of Safety and Health (ADOSH), which is the agency responsible for keeping tabs on safety at the site. They had no reports of death or hospitalization. But Mr. Harris writes in his article that many Fab 21 workers confided in him about accidents they witnessed there.

  • A laborer from Mexico, at the site on a work visa, fell 30 feet when he stepped through a hole in the floor, and according to one co-worker, “lost his spleen, he broke his wrist, he broke five ribs, and ended up having to be in the hospital.”

  • A 60+ year-old man broke both of his legs in a fall from a ladder.

  • On at least two occasions workers have fallen through badly marked scaffolding. 

  • A 40 foot long, 8-ton steel pipe in length was dropped to the ground from 160 feet in the air. 

  • A 20-inch piece of carbon steel fell from a crane and hit a worker on the ground.

  • A pipe with a 6-foot diameter was not properly vented when a non-union worker drained it and it collapsed from internal pressure.

  • Low lighting in stairwells and on scaffolding increase the likelihood of falls.


These are the signs of a cost-cutting builder that puts profits ahead of their workers’ safety. When non-union employees get hurt on the job, it’s common for their managers to not report the incidents to the safety oversight committee (in this case, ADOSH) because they would likely face fines, work stoppages or more. These non-union contractors may feel safe not reporting these incidents when the worker is an undocumented laborer because it’s unlikely such a worker would risk their insecure status by filing a report with a government agency.


A photo taken by a union member on the Fab 21 job site and shared with The American Prospect shows a 6-foot pipe that was crushed when it had not been properly vented by a non-union worker.

That union metalworker we spoke with says, “This is how non-union gets away with treating their employees worse than you’d treat a pack mule. They know they have a lot of those people over a barrel because of their immigration status. So they can do anything to them. And they do, especially if it makes them money or covers up one of their mistakes.” 


To prove that point, the business director for Arizona Local 469 pipefitters union, Josh Wakeham, told a story about one event at the Fab 21 site. “People were told that there was an active-shooting drill, and they were running, and [told] to evacuate the area. So our guys got out of the area. And they found out later that it was a gas leak. And they were just trying to hide that.” 


The bad behavior of non-union contractors affects more than New York City. By gumming up production on a manufacturing facility that is critical to the success of US economic goals, non-union now risks being a drag on our nation’s entire economy. 


Mr. Harris sums it up well with this note from his Prospect article: “Cutting corners on safety and training in a facility as demanding as a semiconductor fab can lead to costly setbacks. It’s a lesson some rival manufacturers have learned in blood. But as the White House wrestles to revive American chip manufacturing, the challenge will be convincing a mature industry that its refusal to share benefits with workers comes with economic as well as human costs.”


When the success of the project is vital, hire unions to do the job. There is no better answer.

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