Unions, nonunions fight over construction safety legislation

An apprenticeship bill is particularly contentious

Nonunion and union protestors both outside of City Hall (credit: Associated Builders & Contractors and Building & Construction Trades Council)
Nonunion and union protestors both outside of City Hall (credit: Associated Builders & Contractors and Building & Construction Trades Council)

The battle between union and nonunion contractors is again flaring up over a new set of construction safety bills being proposed before the City Council.

Both sides held protests at City Hall on Wednesday leading up to the council meeting, where members plan to introduce new legislation aimed at improving safety conditions on construction sites. One bill seeks to require the Department of Buildings to record and make available details on every construction-related injury and fatality in the city, including the name of the general contractor on the site, as first reported by Politico. Another calls for restricting cranes from operating in high winds, and another for the DOB to keep track of the number and condition of construction sheds throughout the city.

One of the more contentious bills would require construction workers involved in projects of a certain size that receive $1 million or more in any kind of government assistance to receive state-approved training. Contractors would be required to participate in apprenticeship programs approved by the New York State Department of Labor if working on projects that are 100,000 square feet or more or have 50 or more residential units. A similar bill was introduced in 2013, but was revived by Council member Ben Kallos. Kallos noted on Wednesday that since 2012, 72 percent of construction-related accidents occurred on sites where contractors didn’t participate in apprenticeship programs.

“No one should die from a construction accident that could have been prevented with proper education, apprenticeship, and protections for a worker’s right to say no to a dangerous situation,” he said in a statement.

Brian Sampson, president of the New York chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, a nonunion organization, said the bill wrongly equates the apprenticeship programs with safety. He argued that the law would force workers to either join a union — since unions already participate in the programs — or apply for a program independently, which can take six to 18 months. He said this is likely to put hundreds of workers out of jobs.

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“It’s nothing more than a market grab by the unions,” he said. “It’s not about safety. It’s about using government as a tool to gobble up jobs.”

The Real Estate Board of New York opposes the bill, as does, more surprisingly, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is typically pro-union. The mayor came out against the proposal last week, saying that there are better ways to encourage safety, Politico reported.

The unions have been beating the war drum against open shop construction for the last few years, as the number of construction deaths in the city climbed — but also union share of jobs across shrunk. Following the death of a worker at the Domino Sugar redevelopment site in Williamsburg in December, Building & Construction Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera sent out a statement noting that 30 workers died at construction sites in New York City in the past two years — with nearly 90 percent of those incidents occurring on nonunion sites.

“The data speaks for itself, and anyone who disagrees is delusional,” he said at the time. “The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that nonunion work sites are extremely dangerous for workers and the public alike.”

The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health timed the release of a report on construction accidents and deaths with Wednesday’s council meeting. The report noted that 464 construction workers died in New York State from 2006 through 2015 and that most of the sites inspected by OSHA following a fatality in 2014 and 2015 were nonunion.