As Non-Union Contractors Cut Costs, Building Quality Suffers

Construction workers talk about deceiving inspectors, outdated materials and worse.

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The structural integrity hidden beneath a building's finish can be severely affected by cost-cutting measures some managers of non-union contractors force their staff to employ. 

Ivan Duta worked for years for one of New York’s largest open-shop contractors, Parkside Construction. “Open-shop” refers to businesses that choose not to hire unionized labor. So, it’s not really a surprise that Parkside has a long rap-sheet of violations, including wage theft, insurance fraud, and safety negligence that resulted in the death of a worker.

Mr. Duta experienced all those abuses, except the death one. He is very much alive and now a member of New York’s Local 46 Ironworkers and Metal Lathers union, and he has stories about his time working at non-union shops that will set off alarm bells for anyone shopping real estate in New York.

Mr. Duta relates an experience from one Parkside project in Manhattan in which a building inspector “came by on the slab that we were in the middle of pouring.” Because the concrete was not yet poured, the inspector could see the metal support work that would lie beneath the surface.

How safe are the buildings constructed by the non-union contractors who force their workers to cut corners and deceive inspectors? 

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Ivan Duta worked for Parkside Construction and says he was forced to deceive inspectors.

Danny Coleman finally quit RNC Industries because of their safety negligence.

Eddie Perez says non-union contractors withheld pay and proper safety equipment.

According to Mr. Duta the inspector said that “a 30-foot bar was missing.” To correct that problem, Mr. Duta explains that “my boss told me to take a bar, cut it in half and stick it into the concrete. Make it look like it was a 30-foot bar.” And when the inspector returned to witness the correction, Mr. Duta was instructed to tell the inspector that “I put a 30-foot bar in.” The boss added that if Mr. Duta refused to lie to the inspector that Duta would lose his job.

This story raises several alarming questions. First, is that floor stronger because it doesn’t have the engineer-specified metal support in it? How much money did Parkside save by this single deception, or was this lie executed at a grander scale, in all the floors of that building, to maximize the savings? What impact does this kind of practice have on the soundness of that building?

Parkside also allegedly achieved other savings through Mr. Duta, who says they stole wages from him regularly and had him paying money into a non-existent healthcare plan, which payments he assumes they kept for themselves.

Danny Coleman and RNC

Danny Coleman, a carpenter, worked for 6 years at RNC Industries. Like Parkside, RNC is a big New York open-shop contractor, has been cited for many violations, and their worksite negligence led to the death of one worker.

That death may have been on Mr. Coleman’s mind the day he quit RNC because of their attitude toward work site safety. He describes how one morning on the job someone discovered a faulty safety pin holding a critical steel rod in a crane. Mr. Coleman explains how that safety pin was replaced with jury-rigged tire wire and duct tape. The crane was then put to use all day long lifting heavy construction materials over the heads of workers with this slapped-together solution.

On that day Mr. Coleman also had on his mind a deck collapse that happened on the site 10 days before, which he says was because RNC was using old and less-reliable construction materials. “That shouldn’t happen” on a building in New York City, he said.

So, when Mr. Coleman witnessed the duct-taped crane he objected to his supervisors, insisted they do a proper repair, and challenged them, “we have to be better than that.” And when those supervisors insisted that the team keep working with the crane in its current condition, Mr. Coleman walked off the job site and never returned. He is now a member of the New York City Carpenters Union.

As a sad and ironic side note, in 2016 a 43-year-old crane operator named Paul Kennedy, who was working on a Parkside job site in Brooklyn, was killed when a metal part from a crane dislodged and hit him in the head. The Department of Buildings shut down the site and fined Parkside. Mr. Coleman’s caution on the RNC job illustrates that accidents like these are avoidable when a safety-first culture is fostered.

Mr. Coleman’s experience raises more questions about the quality of non-union construction. What type of supplies did RNC use to repair that deck collapse – more of the same dated materials? In how many buildings were they using these items and as a result, are those buildings less stable than they could or should be? And how many workers have been put in jeopardy by their cavalier approach to safety?

Eddie Perez and Mountco

Eddie Perez used to work for Mountco Construction and Development and then for Mega Construction, two open-shop contractors. Mr. Perez was working on a high-rise in New York when he told his supervisor that OSHA law requires construction employers to provide their crew with safety harnesses. Mr. Perez tells how the manager reached into his compound bucket and pulled out a harness. As he tossed it at Mr. Perez he said, “here’s your harness.”

Mr. Perez saw immediately that the harness was for a much smaller person, it would never fit him. He said “This is baby-gap approved, not OSHA approved.” The manager told him “You can take this, or you can go talk to management,” which many workers on open-shop job sites take as “go over my head and you’re fired.” Mr. Perez worked without a harness. He’s now in the New York City Carpenters Union.

All three of these men say there are many, many more stories like these that they and countless other workers can share about working on a non-union construction team. These testimonies cause any listener to become suspect of the quality of those buildings. If workers are forced to cut corners on engineering and then told to lie about it to inspectors, are not given safety training or safety equipment, and have to worry about whether they will be paid for the hours they put in, or suspect that they don’t actually have the healthcare coverage they’re paying into – those workers are not being set up to do professional quality work.

Each of these three workers made their way into NYC unions and they now see and speak of the stark difference between non-union work and working in a union. Their stories issue a warning to anyone looking to buy or rent in New York: Ask who built the building, because while the difference on the surface may not be huge, what lies beneath the surface could be very costly.

The US House of Reps Passed the PRO-Act to Protect Worker Rights

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Here are five provisions

in the PRO Act:

 

  1. So-called right-to-work laws in more than two dozen states allow workers in union-represented workplaces to opt out of the union, and not pay union dues. At the same time, such workers are still covered under the wage and benefits provisions of the union contract. The PRO Act would allow unions to override such laws and collect dues from those who opt out, in order to cover the cost of collective bargaining and administration of the contract.

  2. Employee interference and influence in union elections would be forbidden. Company-sponsored meetings — with mandatory attendance — are often used to lobby against a union organizing drive. Such meetings would be illegal. Additionally, employees would be able to cast a ballot in union organizing elections at a location away from company property.

  3. Often, even successful union organizing drives fail to result in an agreement on a first contract between labor and management. The PRO Act would remedy that by allowing newly certified unions to seek arbitration and mediation to settle such impasses in negotiations.

  4. The law would prevent an employer from using its employee's immigration status against them when determining the terms of their employment.

  5. It would establish monetary penalties for companies and executives that violate workers' rights. Corporate directors and other officers of the company could also be held liable.

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