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Another Window is Opened on Non-Union’s Relationship with the Rules


FDNY firefighters carry the body of a construction worker out of the Brooklyn building where a non-union project caved in on top of him. — William Farrington for NY Post

A private home in Brooklyn was undergoing big renovations. Large-machine excavation was required. A new structural skeleton for the building was required. But the owner hired a non-union crew to do the job, which was the first bad decision of many that eventually lead to the death of a worker when that structure caved in on him last week.

This story demonstrates on a small scale how so many non-union contractors choose to run their projects and the impact of those choices on innocent people. In this case the builder eschewed permits, avoided inspections, apparently skimped on building materials, and did not have a proper grasp of engineering principles. All of these short-comings can be found again and again on large New York City construction projects run by non-union contractors.

Why No Permits?

The builder for the Brooklyn project decided to forego getting permits from the Department of Building (DOB). Permits alert the oversight agency that a project will happen, what that project entails, and who will be doing it. Permits allow the DOB to ensure that proper construction standards are followed — such as processes, materials, and licensing — so that the building and the people in it and around it will be safe during and after the construction.

An inspector for a firm doing work in Hudson Yards spoke with Union Built Matters about the Brooklyn job. He said, “Permits are the very first thing I look for on a job site. When a builder does work without a permit, they are either too cheap to pay the permitting fees, or they’re trying to hide some other skin-flint behavior, like using cheap materials or skipping steps. When you find a job that’s being done without permits, you found a builder that has something to hide.”

Dodging Inspectors

Residents in the neighborhood of the Brooklyn project complained to the DOB about it. When the DOB found no permits for that address, they sent inspectors who were denied access to the property. The inspectors saw excavation equipment and documented that it was clear construction was happening. The owner of the building was cited for doing work without a permit and a stop work order was posted on the property.

When inspectors returned to the location, though work was clearly proceeding, they were repeatedly denied entrance. This belligerence for inspectors is a common attitude in the non-union construction world. Workers are often told to mislead inspectors. Some inspectors have even been assaulted by contractors when they try to access job sites and file a report.

"When you find a job that’s being done without permits, you found a builder that has something to hide.”

Poor Materials and Worse Knowledge

Three workers were in the Brooklyn basement when the new steel-beam floor they’d installed collapsed on top of them. One of the workers was pinned and eventually died from his injuries. The inspector we spoke with said, “Those were steel floor beams. They were expected to carry the weight of the upper floors, and they clearly could not hold that weight because they caved in before those upper floors were even installed. To me, that cave-in demonstrates either seriously low-quality materials or a serious lack of engineering know-how, or possibly both.” He added, “Imagine if that collapse happened after the building was completed. So irresponsible. But sadly, not uncommon.”

Indeed, such incompetence is easy to find in the world of non-union construction. A similar ignorance has held up non-union work on a luxury high rise in New York’s seaport for years. And has caused residents at the non-union-built 11 Greene Street condos to revolt. And has driven many occupants of a non-union condo in Queens to move out. The examples are plentiful and shocking.

Hire Unions

The inspector said, “I sometimes question the intelligence of some of these non-union contractors. They think they’re saving money by ignoring the rules. Like that’s going to make them more profitable. But now look at the Brooklyn thing. That job is stopped, a man is dead, there will be lawsuits. And nobody can predict when or even if that project will ever get done now. How smart is that?”

He added, “From my experience, none of this stuff happens when you hire union.”

Here we are again. Another project is handed to non-union, presumably based on cost and convenience. Poor decisions by the cost-cutting contractor cause that project to go awry. A worker is killed and the project grinds to a halt. This is a common refrain when non-union leads construction projects in New York City.

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