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Working In These Times

Friday, Aug 12, 2011, 7:00 am

Potential Looms for First New York City-Wide Construction Strike in 80 Years

BY Mike Elk

Late last week, hundreds of cement workers walked off the job at the World Trade Center Site and several other sites in protest of management association The Cement League’s demand that New York City’s cement workers take a 20 percent wage reduction on residential and hotel projects. The contract between 2,700 cement workers represented by Locals 6a, 18a and 20 of the Cement and Concrete Workers of New York and The Cement League had been expired for more than a month.

Walking off the job was a bold move to signal to management that workers were not going to tolerate a 20 percent wage cut. The move was particularly brave since the sites the workers were working at were covered by project labor agreements that outlaw strikes. Thus the strike was not officially sanctioned by the union leadership, in order to avoid any legal charges being filed against them.

The three-day walk-off strike at various sites around New York City was able to successfully bringing the management association back to the table. The two sides now have till August 16 to negotiate a new contract.

Workers are promising a new type of militancy, as NYC construction unions prepare for a showdown with management associations across the city, who are making demands for massive cuts to the various unions that work on construction sites. While union leaders will not publicly say if they will “walk off” again, the three-day walk-off was widely interpreted as a threat that, if issues were not resolved, there would be more work stoppages.

In addition to the three-day walk-off by cement workers, late last week members of the 25,000 strong New York City District Council of Carpenters authorized a strike if a contract was not reached with the Association of Wall, Ceiling, and Carpentry Industries of Greater New York by August 15. The main sticking point in negotiations is that management associations want to stop the practice of hiring from the union’s hiring halls. 

Construction employment varies from project to project and workers must be hired for each project. Unionized construction companies are currently forced to hire half of their carpenters from a list of out-of-work union workers. 

The Association of Wall, Ceiling, and Carpentry Industries wants to do away with this so that they can hire any union worker they want, in order to avoid union activists and hire less militant union workers. Many workers join a construction union because of the promise that they can easily be hired through the union hiring hall or out-of-work lists. Doing away with the union hiring hall would dramatically weaken the power and appeal of construction unions: Instead of the union being a source of hiring, the construction companies would have the sole ability to determine who is hired.

With deadlines for both strikes set to expire within a day of each other, the cement workers and carpenters could effectively halt construction throughout the city if their demands are not met. Cement workers and carpenters are essential to any construction project, and such projects would not be able to continue operating without these two unions working. In addition, many unionized construction workers from other trades would refuse to cross the picket lines of carpenters and cement workers; thus it is possible that New York City could see the first city-wide construction strike in decades.

“It’s possible that we might have the first city-wide strike in 80 years," said Gregory A. Butler, a 20-year long member of Carpenters Local 157. "It’s been the worst since the early 1970s. Approximately 40 percent of construction workers are out of work, and now they are trying to make giant demands on us and we are getting to take it.”

As unions across the country are increasingly being asked for major concessions that threaten their viability as collective bargaining agents, many unions are faced with a choice: Either fight back, or risk extinction as effective agents of collective bargaining.

“Militant action is consistent with the practices of the New York City Building Trades," says Butler. “There is a reason we as construction unions have survived in New York City when other unions in the private sector like the United Auto Workers have disintegrated. It’s because we take action when faced with unreasonable demands."

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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