New England Carpenters & Painters walk out, demand COVID protections

Coronavirus
Construction worker at a site in Boston’s Seaport District. (Matt Stone / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald)

By JAMES FARRELL

The COVID-19 crisis has caused mass unemployment, but in many locales building-trades workers, both union and nonunion, are expected to continue working. Is this because they are constructing infrastructure essential to fighting the coronavirus? No. Quite often, they are working to build condos, homes, or commercial projects deemed necessary by the rich, but with no impact on the crisis.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions aimed at “flattening the curve” exempted almost 900 projects from shutdown orders, including luxury condo projects in Manhattan. In Massachusetts, the governor classified construction activity as essential. At least a dozen Boston area members of the carpenters’ union have tested positive for the coronavirus, and hundreds are self-quarantining as a result of on-the-job exposure. This recklessness by the government and the contractors endangers the lives of construction workers and their families.

The Boston-based Eastern States Regional Council of Carpenters called on all of their 13,000 members to walk off the job on Monday, April 6. Late in the day on Monday, the Painters’ union joined with the Carpenters in telling their members to stay home. In all, approximately 17,000 construction workers are idled by the first major officially sanctioned job action by construction workers in response to this crisis.

Carpenters union tops have cited the fact that companies have failed to provide the proper sanitation and protective gear, and the impossibility of maintaining physical distancing on the job as the impetus for the action. “Despite everyone’s best effort, no one has been able to satisfy everyone’s requirement that the jobs are safe,” said Carpenters Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Flynn.

On April 1, the Massachusetts Building Trades Council (BTC) voted to call on the governor to shut down all non-essential construction for a month. BTC head, Francis Callahan, said, “The existing order from the state leaves too much work ongoing and what I would consider work that can wait. It’s a horror show…”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has stated that he has ordered contractors to implement “social distancing” measures and that contractors should “secure the site and pause construction” when workers are exposed, but union officials have acknowledged that implementation of these protective measures has not happened. In response to the BTC call of a shutdown, he cited a housing shortage in Boston to justify continuing construction work.

In Philadelphia, construction of the new $700 million Live! Hotel & Casino has continued after the general contractor, Gilbane, obtained an exemption from Governor Tom Wolf’s shutdown of businesses. The waivers for businesses is supposedly for health-care or other “life-sustaining” work. Hundreds of construction workers report to the casino site daily.

At least two workers on the site have tested positive and dozens have been asked to self-quarantine. The second person on the job to test positive was an on-site medic who was reportedly asymptomatic. In response to this, and following advice from a union official who said the site is unsafe, some of the carpenters walked off. Additionally, Electricians Local 98 and Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 have pulled their members from the site.

Local 19 President Gary Masino wrote,  “While some job sites have reopened in Pennsylvania via the waiver process, it is unfortunate that the General Contractors on a few of these projects were not complying with the CDC regulations. … Because of this, we felt that the workers on those projects were in danger and it was decided to pull our Local 19 members off of those sites.”

Additionally, there have been smaller, unsanctioned job actions on individual sites in New York and Ohio by carpenters, plumbers, sheet metal, ironworkers, and electricians. Some contractors have shut down operations to protect workers, but for many companies it’s full steam ahead with few protections for workers on the job sites. For these contractors, their profits and schedules take precedence over the lives and health of workers. Ironically, the building-trades unions have been trying to sell the fiction that the contractors are the workers’ “partners.” This myth is exposed by the lack of concern for our health by our “partners.”

Shut it down!

All non-essential construction activity must stop during this crisis, with laid-off workers’ unemployment compensation supplemented to insure no loss in pay. The benefit contributions made to health, savings, and pensions must continue at full rate. For those job sites where essential work must be continued—for example, the building of temporary health care facilities or repairs to critical infrastructure—the work week should be cut to 20 hours at no loss in pay.

No work should be performed without the proper PPE, and on-site conditions must be made sanitary. This includes adequate running water and soap for hand washing. Stewards must have the ability to stop all work if a problem arises. Paid time off and sick leave must be offered to all workers. The building trades unions should extend their oversight and protection to nonunion construction workers by advocating for their safety and to ensure that they are paid a fair wage.

The cost of this crisis must not be balanced on the backs of working people. Make the bosses pay!

 

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