Two Killed Workers: The Same Sad Lesson

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Halyna Hutchins and Juan Chonillo both died on job sites made reckless and unsafe by non-union crews that lacked respect for safety procedures.

Any money saved by hiring non-union is not worth the lives that are lost as a result. Hire union.

Halyna Hutchins and Juan Chonillo are two names you are unlikely to see in the same sentence very often. Ms. Hutchins was a union cinematographer climbing the ladder in Hollywood, and Mr. Chonillo was an Ecuadorian immigrant working non-union construction on high rises in New York City.

Both of them would die tragic accidental deaths on the job. Both accidents were easily avoidable. And both tragedies share a common root cause: The financiers of their projects leaned on non-union contractors to save money and an incredibly unsafe work site ensued, costing the life of a worker.

Unions respect safety. Non-unions, well, their record speaks for itself.

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Ms. Hutchins was a British citizen. At the time of her death she was seen as an artist with great promise in Hollywood as a cinematographer.

Halyna Hutchins: Union Cinematographer on a Mostly Non-Union Shoot

Ms. Hucthins’ name is in the news again because lawyers for her estate have just announced a settlement to their lawsuit against the producers of the film “Rust,” on which she was working when she was killed.

While filming in New Mexico, Ms. Hutchins, the film’s cinematographer, was shot when a prop gun held by actor Alec Baldwin went off. Ms. Hutchins and the film's director Joel Souza were hit by the same projectile and Ms. Hutchins died from her wounds. Live ammunition was not supposed to be on the set at all. Filming was immediately halted.

While the cause of the accident is still under investigation, there are many undisputed events from the shoot that mirror those that happen everyday in New York's non-union construction industry.

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Cast and crew members of "Rust."

Tragedy Starts With The Decision to go Non-Union

To save money, the producers did not hire a full union crew. Unions insist on proper overtime pay and adhering to safety protocols to protect their members. These requirements cost management time and money. According to people on the crew, the "Rust" shoot schedule was accelerated, and very few if any safety rules were actually followed.

The few union workers on the set implored management to increase adherence to safety standards. One union crew member told Union-Built Matters, “It was the worst set I’ve ever been on in my career. There seemed to be no safety protocols. We complained to the department heads constantly, but they didn’t change a thing.”

Then on one day, two accidental gun discharges occurred. The union worker said, “There should have been an investigation into what happened. There were no safety meetings. There was no assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. All they wanted to do was rush, rush, rush.” He said, “After the two gun shots and how they reacted to it, our union said that for our own safety we should quit.”

When they quit the next day, the only two remaining union workers on the set were Ms. Hutchins and Mr. Joel.

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The shell of the building at 161 Maiden Lane, nicknamed "The Leaning Tower of Pizzarotti," (the building is leaning and the developer is Pizzarotti, LLC) stands incomplete and has no restart or target completion date.

Juan Chonillo: Non-union Worker Exploited on New York’s Waterfront

Mr. Chonillo worked for SSC High Rise, a non-union cement subcontractor, installing the cement at the Seaside Residences, a 58-story luxury condo on the lower east side waterfront. Begun in 2015, this high rise is riddled with construction issues and remains a towering skeletal husk peering across the East River at Brooklyn.

 

Developer Pizzarotti, LLC, chose non-union sub-contractors. After the superstructure was completed, inspectors found that the building is leaning to the north. They stopped construction. In 2018 a crane slammed a bucket of wet concrete into the deck of the 34th floor that sent concrete and metal raining down to the street. Amazingly, no one was hurt.

 

But the negligent mistake that cost Mr. Chionillo his life is just as ridiculous and unexplainable as the one that killed Ms. Hutchins.

 

In the trial against SSC for negligence, prosecutors explained that a foreman ordered workers to move a scaffolding platform while Mr. Chonillo and other workers were still on the structure 29 floors above street level. Everything about this assignment violates New York building codes, not to mention common sense.

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At the trial against SSC High Rise for negligence, Mr. Chonillo's sister, Angela (center) said “He should not have died in that place, in that way. This was negligence committed by the people in charge.”

The platform jammed against the building preventing it from moving. Mr. Chonillo unhooked his harness to try to free it. But the structure suddenly began to shake violently and Mr. Chonillo, unharnessed, fell to his death. He left a wife and five children.

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In 2018 a crane smashed a bucket of cement against the building, damaging the 34th floor platform and sending debris cascading to the street below.

They Will Finish the Movie, Will They Ever Finish the Building?

The building where Mr. Chonillo died still leans and it remains anyone’s guess when, or if, the project will ever be completed.
 

In the “Rust” lawsuit settlement Ms. Hutchins' widower, Matthew Hutchins, will become an executive producer of the movie, which he intends to complete as a tribute to his wife's final work. He will keep the director, Mr. Souza, and they plan to restart production in January 2023.

Hire Unions. Workers Stay Alive That Way

We have some advice for Mr. Hutchins as he bravely seeks to pick up the pieces of this troubled film. You have real decision power as executive producer. If you want to respect the legacy of workers who have died as a result of non-union cost-cutting, insist on hiring union talent across the board. And everyone goes home safe after work.

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