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Hard Hat Ceremony Honors City’s Fallen Construction Workers

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Father Brian Jordan, chaplain to the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said “It was immigrant workers who built this cathedral, and it was union workers who helped rebuild the construction in the last ten years.”

By Jessica Beebe

New York City’s annual hard hat ceremony, honoring construction workers who died in the five boroughs over the last year, took place at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Wednesday, May 1, a date marking the feast of carpenter Saint Joseph the Worker. Pope Pius XII instituted the day in 1955 to coincide with International Workers Day, or May Day, to “ensure workers never lose the Christian understanding of work,” as Father Brian Jordan, who led the ceremony, put it.

A little after 3 o’clock, a crowd started to form at the front of the cathedral; union representatives holding up banners emblazoned with their respective names and mottos, construction workers toting their gear from the day’s job, managers and architects of building projects wearing suits and ties, the parish personnel leading the ensuing mass–all united in wearing hard hats.

An Important Day

“This is an important day of the year,” said a longtime member of an electrical workers’ union who traveled in from Long Island to attend. “It’s very crucial to our work that they do this each year–that they recognize the construction workers who were lost and give them the honor they deserve.”

Father Jordan, who is also chaplain to the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, wore a white hard hat with a cross sticker as the throng began the procession into the cathedral, bagpipers filling Fifth Avenue with melancholy. Inside, Father Jordan underscored the necessity of construction workers, calling them “co-creators who are shaping and reshaping” the world. “Nothing can happen without you co-creating this world,” he said. “No roads, no schools, no buildings, no hospitals, no rocketships, no cars, no planes.” He called this duty “sacred” and explained that apprenticeship and learning trades is not just about using one’s hands, but also full hearts and souls as they undergo tough training and conduct rigorous labor.

Memorial Highlights Importance of Unions

Dozens of unions showed up to the ceremony, electrical workers, operating engineers, carpenters, plumbers, steamfitters, and more among them.

This year, the hard hat ceremony paid particular homage to 13 individuals in total. Thirteen chairs lined the altar of the church, a hard hat and a rose atop each seat. It is worth noting that this past year was the first time the Teamsters Local 282 union lost any workers (Nelson “Tony” Gonzales and Francisco Lumbreras).

The construction world in New York City is, as Union-Built Matters has often reported, deadly, with an apparent 20 percent jump in worker deaths from 2021 to 2022 (marking an astounding 85 percent spike over two years). As the rate of construction worker deaths has increased over time, it is clear that rise is a result of worsening safety conditions, not simply an increase in workers.

While the memorial at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral honored 13, in reality there were far more fatalities among construction workers last year. 90 percent of construction-related deaths occur on non-union sites, a fact that underscores the sizable gap in safety measures between union and non-union jobs; bad-acting contractors running the latter often cut corners in order to save on time and costs. It is hard to pinpoint exactly how many total workers were lost across the city in the last year (often, the injuries and even deaths of non-union workers are swept under the rug), but in 2022 there were reportedly at least 24 deaths.

As the rate of construction worker deaths has increased, it is clear the rise is a result of worsening safety conditions, not simply an increase in workers.

Immigrant Workers and Unions

Throughout the memorial mass, Father Jordan alternated between English and Spanish, encouraging those in attendance to pray or respond in any language they wished. This spoke to the fact that the construction world is largely made up of Spanish-speaking immigrants; in fact, eight of the 13 individuals commemorated at the May 1st ceremony were Latino.

“It was immigrant workers who built this cathedral,” said Father Jordan. “And it was union workers who helped rebuild the construction in the last ten years.” He emphasized that the city’s immigrant construction workers often face dire dangerous circumstances on the job, due to the fact that many of them are non-union and thus not guaranteed safety on the job.

Bridging the Gap

In his homily, Father Jordan urged union workers in the congregation to recognize that they must “bridge the gap” between immigrant non-union workers and American-born union workers. “Union workers do get protection and safety–but many others do not,” he said, adding that the former should have vested interest in organizing non-union groups when they see the exploitation they face. Father Jordan also touched on the urgency of continued investigation into corrupt job sites by bodies like Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) so as to uncover “unscrupulous and union-busting deceiving lawyers.”

Father Jordan also touched on the fact that many unions refer to themselves as “brotherhoods” (though a few women construction workers were indeed in attendance in hard hats at the ceremony), which suggests sentiments of companionship. “Brotherhood means real support, and we must practice what we preach,” Father Jordan said, suggesting that the act of talking to a trusted person to “unburden oneself” can help them to clear stress and avoid making hasty decisions that could lead to danger.

Listening to the priest’s words about living in solidarity with their fallen brothers and sisters stirred the emotions of many of the construction workers and their families sitting in the wooden pews at Saint Patrick’s “The word ‘union’ comes from ‘communion,’ Father Jordan said a couple of times, implying that coming together to work as a whole is the key to success. Union members must do the grunt work of bringing non-union and immigrant workers into their fold, offering organization for those who are lost in the spinning gears of the machine that is the city’s tumultuous construction world. Because while New York City has undoubtedly been making an effort to bolster the industry and make it safer, it is ultimately workers’ efforts toward mass unionization that will repair the industry.

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Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at jessica.beebe.ny@gmail.com.

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