We’re Fed Up With Getting Nothing But Crumbs

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New York Assemblyman Ron Kim explains how unions are left with the crumbs after fat cats carve up the pie — and that it's time for things to change.

New York is a city of epic proportions. And what’s true of its skyline is also true of the influence exerted by its deep-pocketed, mega-real-estate developers. What are they after? More profits. And freedom from the consequences of the unscrupulous decisions they often compel by hiring more and more non-union contractors. 

 

Union contractors— who only employ the highest trained workers and have the best records on safety and quality— play a critical role in standing up to these developers. They refuse to skimp on materials, compromise on workmanship, or cut safety corners that cost lives. 

 

But is the deck stacked in favor of non-unionized contractors willing to kowtow to developer pressure? And how much sway do these mega-real-estate developers have over the policymakers who set the rules that pick the winners and losers?   

 

To get an inside perspective on these questions and more, journalist Walker Bragman interviewed Assemblyman Ron Kim for Union Built Matters (video of that interview is at the end of this article). Kim represents Queen’s 40th district, which includes portions of Whitestone, Flushing, Murray Hill and Collegepoint neighborhoods. Kim is no stranger to the plight of working people. He spent the last several months fighting for home care workers who are owed billions in stolen wages. He is currently championing the Grieving Families Act, which could be instrumental in holding negligent contractors to account and incentivizing them to uphold safety standards. 

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Ron Kim says of big developers, “somehow, somewhere in the dark hours of the night, they cut a deal and unions get crumbs at the very back end.”

Surviving family members of Gregory Ecchevarria and Carlos Moncayo will have recourse to seek compensation from their loved ones' employers through wrongful death lawsuits if Governor Hochul signs the Grieving Families Act into law. Both men died on non-union construction sites and their employers have been cited.

Kim has seen firsthand the shady process by which construction contracts are awarded, and how powerful interests can conspire to place a finger on the scale in favor of non-unionized contractors. “This is still a city that’s run by big developers.” Kim laments, “the big real estate, private equity, hedge fund types, that are behind the dark money that dominate the scene.” 

 

In his own district, Kim has resolutely attempted to “hold the line” and bring in union subcontractors from the very early stages of the projects all the way through the end. However, he finds his efforts are stymied by the forces of big developer money—  “somehow, somewhere in the dark hours of the night, they cut a deal and unions get crumbs at the very back end.” 


But while those big money interests are doing all they can behind closed doors to cut union workers out, all over the country— outside of Starbucks’, Chipotle’s, Amazon warehouses and on social media feeds— a populist wave of pro-union sentiment is rising. In fact, unions are more popular today than they have been in sixty years. For Kim’s part, he acknowledges the momentum that is starting to build, and believes that “with a few more successes, we will see a new movement towards the next unionizing chapter in this country.” A chapter in which the wealth disparity— which has been increasing for decades as union membership declined commensurately—  will finally reverse course.

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Assemblyman Kim represents portions of Whitestone, Flushing, Murray Hill and Collegepoint neighborhoods in northern Queens.

While there are encouraging signs, there is still much work left to do. The forces steering this industry are formidable and will find new ways to maintain their grip on money and power. In Kim's opinion, to truly level the playing field, we will need to“surgically root out the ability [of big money] to influence policy makers.” If we don’t, “we will continue to have contracts that are not unionized, while our union brothers and sisters are left wondering, ‘why are we only getting crumbs at the very end?’” Here are a few of the changes we can fight for.

  • We can amplify the workplace fatalities registry, making it harder for unscrupulous contractors to hide their fatal negligence. 

  • We can urge Governor Kathy Hochul to enact Carlos’ Law, amplifying fines for those unscrupulous contractors beyond mere “monopoly money.” 

  • We can enforce Local Law 196 to ensure construction workers receive vital training. 

  • We can hire more inspectors. 

  • We can pass the Grieving Families Act.

 

And, perhaps most importantly, we can make it a common practice that all real estate shoppers ask their realtor: “Who built this building?”

Follow Assemblyman Ron Kim on Twitter @rontkim

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Walker Bragman is a journalist based out of New York.

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Mark Colangelo is a writer and blogger.

 

The Union-Built Matters interview with Assemblyman Ron Kim: Unions are "tired of getting nothing but crumbs" 

 

New York Assemblyman Ron Kim sits down with journalist Walker Bragman to discuss the powerful and negative influence that big money developers, donors and lobbyists have in deciding how work is distributed and run in state industries.

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