During a federal court hearing on Thursday, a construction executive admitted that his Long Island-based company encouraged employees to infiltrate union meetings. He also explained why he bought “spy glasses.”
Justin Hagedorn, general superintendent at Trade Off and one of its affiliates, Trade Off Plus, said his fear of a Local 79 business representative led him to take extra security precautions, which included hiring off-duty police officers to follow him around. The issue of “spy glasses” — eyeglasses with a built-in camera that Hagedorn admitted didn’t work well — came up on Thursday during a hearing at the National Labor Relations Board.
In a case that consolidates five complaints against Trade Off, the company is accused of threatening employees and conducting illegal surveillance of workers who communicated with the union and discussed work conditions at Related Companies’ 520 West 30th and 264 West streets. Several individuals were fired from Trade Off, the complaints allege, for a variety of legal activities related to the laborers union, including registering for an apprenticeship program, handing out union leaflets and posting a comment about Trade Off on the union’s Facebook page.
Though Hagedorn said the spy specs were only used to record the business representative, he admitted that Trade Off encouraged workers to attend union meetings to see if the members were discussing the company. In an email exchange with another Trade Off executive last year, the two discussed an employee who had been approached by a union representative and determined that they should “keep an eye on” the worker, according to an exhibit in the case.
During Thursday’s testimony, Hagedorn referred to workers who were uninterested in joining Local 79 as loyal “core guys.” He said union workers would walk up to Trade Off employees on their lunch break and show off their paychecks, asking the employees if they’d like to make a union wage. (This is protected activity, but Hagedorn alleges that the interruptions were excessive.)
Hagedorn said one Local 79 business representative in particular, Paris Simmons, harassed him and in one instance followed him while wearing a ski mask (though he did not provide further details on the alleged incident).
“On multiple occasions he called me a slave owner,” Hagedorn said during Thursday’s hearing. “He was always cursing, screaming at me, following me.”
Tamir Rosenblum, an attorney for the union, said Trade Off turned to the surveillance equipment and hired off-duty cops to “police a workforce mainly consisting of formerly incarcerated people of color.” Trade Off relies, in part, on nonprofits, like Center for Employment Opportunities, that help find work for individuals with criminal records.
“These blatant reductions of black workers — many still under state supervision— to the status of either grateful children or dangerous criminals is reminiscent of some of the deep South’s disgraced labor traditions,” Rosenblum said in a statement provided to The Real Deal. “All of this played out not in 1950s Mississippi, but at a company supplying laborers to some of NYC’s biggest construction firms, like the Related Companies and Gilbane Construction. The case should serve as a dire warning about the highly racialized forms of exploitation we can expect to find in, so called, ‘open shop/merit shop’ construction.”
An attorney for Trade Off called Rosenblum’s comments “racist and defamatory” and an effort to distract from the union’s “atrocious hiring record.”
“Local 79 has been engaged in an unprecedented intimidation campaign against anyone who dares find work outside of their attempted monopoly of the construction industry, forcing our employees to turn to the police, hire protection and file lawsuits to protect them and their families,” Erin McGinnis, an attorney for Trade Off said in a statement. “Our workforce is exceptionally more diverse than the “friends and family” club that Local 79 promotes.”
The NLRB case, which is ongoing, is just one of several ongoing legal spats involving Trade Off. The company faces multiple sexual harassment complaints filed by former employees. The company has also fired off multiple lawsuits against Local 79, alleging harassment of its employees.
The various disputes between Local 79 and Trade Off come as union groups continue to clash with Related Companies over its use of nonunion labor at Hudson Yards. Since last year, the Building and Construction Trades Council has held a series of protests against Related for its use of nonunion labor — including Trade Off — at the megadevelopment.