One Brother Will Live, One Won't
The key difference in their fates is union membership.
Luis Ramos discussing the hardships of non-union construction work in New York City and how he believes they took his brother Angel's life, seen here in an inset from his funeral.
This is the story of Luis and Angel Ramos, two brothers who came to New York City from Ecuador with exceptional carpentry skills and dreams of prosperity.
One brother successfully joined New York’s carpenters union and is on his way toward realizing the American Dream.
The other brother had trouble getting into a union and is now dead, a victim on non-union nonchalance regarding safety regulations.
Luis and Angel learned their carpentry skills in the cities of Ecuador where they worked with engineers, architects and tradesmen to erect buildings. Their father is a construction foreman, so perhaps building is in their genes. Whatever the reason, they both quickly developed into expert carpenters.
But Ecuador is a difficult place to get ahead. They hoped to ply their talents in a more profitable market and provide a better life for their young families.
Luis Ramos, the elder, had read about New York City’s soaring construction boom, and was the first brother to seek opportunity here. He quickly found work alongside many other immigrant tradesmen toiling for under-the-table wages at non-union open shops.
Luis remembers this time in the non-union shops as “paying his dues” to get into a better position. By his account, it was not a happy time.
“They make you do anything. Anything they need you to do,” he said of the non-union construction companies, “even if you’re not trained to do that.” As a result, he said, “I did everything. One day concrete. One day carpentry. One day laborer. Whatever.” Doing jobs he was untrained to do, on the platforms of open high-rise structures, made him feel unsafe much of the time.
Increasing this stress, he and his colleagues were under constant deadline pressures. “They always tell you ‘this must be done today,’ and they rush you to finish no matter what,” he explained. Even if the crew lacked training, materials or time, they were expected to meet these daily deadlines and Luis estimates that many corners were cut in the process.
One company that employed Luis was Rovini Concrete, a non-union shop with a record of wage theft and worse. And Luis experienced this graft himself. “Oh yeah, you work late, work extra days to meet their timelines. But you don’t get any extra pay. No overtime, no extra.”
But he bore the abuse. “You don’t complain because you know the bosses will be like, 'OK. No job.’” And he was clear that though he had many of these experiences at Rovini, “all of the non-union paces I worked are the same. Same thing everywhere.”
Some of New York’s construction unions have recruitment programs to pluck talented workers from the non-union work force. This recruiting helps get skilled workers documented, puts them on the federal, state and city tax rolls, allows them to focus on their core training, and gets them headed toward a better future.
A recruiter at the Carpenters Union found Luis. After a time helping him straighten out his immigration documents and his green card status, Luis was successfully recruited into the union. He says working on a union job is the polar opposite or working non-union jobs. “Very different. They take my safety very seriously. I get paid for all the work I do, even overtime. I do carpentry, nothing else. And they will teach you if you don’t know something. Trained guys do the concrete and other stuff. We have benefits.” Most importantly, he adds, “I have time for my family. Now we have a future.”
During this time, hearing about Luis’s success, Angel Ramos, the younger carpenter brother, arrived in New York. Like Luis, Angel quickly found work in non-union shops and was living the non-union work life Luis had described. Luis gave Angel’s information to the Carpenters Union recruiter who met with Angel and immediately started working on his case in the hopes that Angel would not have to put in as many years working non-union.
But Angel had problems securing some critical documentation which prevented him from completing the necessary government paperwork that would lead to enrolling in a union. The recruiter worked on unravelling these issues while Angel worked in non-union shops. Luis said that Angel loved being in New York, that he whole-heartedly took on the challenges of non-union work, despite it’s apparent unfairness and danger.
Then Angel got a job with Rovini Concrete.
Angel had been communicating with his wife in Ecuador on Facebook, letting her know about his experiences working for Rovini. She wrote to him, “My dear, stop that stupid work already, it's dangerous my love, I love you." He reassured her that he would be fine.
Just days after this exchange, on a 9th Avenue work site that had already suffered a number of safety violations, Angel Munoz stumbled on loose flooring and fell down a safety-violating open elevator shaft and died.
Two brothers shared a profession and a dream. One got into a New York City union and today he thrives, except for the mourning he feels for his lost sibling. Luis says, “I lost my little brother, and that can never be replaced.” Angel, the brother stuck working for non-unions, who could not get into a union quickly enough, has become part of a growing, sad and deadly statistic.
Angel on a work site in New York City. He embraced working in the non-union sector but is wife implored him to quit for his own safety. – DNAinfo
Luis remembers this time in non-union shops as "paying his dues" to get into a better position. By his account, it was not a happy time.
Emergency responders to the 9th Avenue site where Mr. Ramos fell could not revive him. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. – DNAinfo
"You don't complain because you know the bosses will be like, 'OK. No Job.'"
Get The Facts
If you work, shop, study, or live in a NYC high-rise, here are 3 reasons you'll want to know who built it: safety, quality, and cost to you. Find out the real stories about non-union construction in New York City.