Construction union sizes up mayoral hopefuls

Affordable housing hiring, plans for “body shops” priorities for Mason Tenders’ District Council

Mason Tenders District Council president Mike Hellstrom Jr. (Photos via Getty/Mason Tenders District Council)
Mason Tenders District Council president Mike Hellstrom Jr. (Photos via Getty/Mason Tenders District Council)

The city’s laborers union is gearing up to endorse one of the city’s many mayoral hopefuls.

The Mason Tenders’ District Council, which is poised to announce its pick for mayor this month, has asked candidates to commit to something Mayor Bill de Blasio has not: hiring more union laborers on affordable housing projects.

Built into this question is another: How does each of the candidates plan to address the proliferation of what the union calls “body shops”?

The question is part of the union’s broader campaign against such shops, which it defines as nonunion companies that supply laborers to general contractors at low wages with limited benefits. The union has argued that such companies prey on vulnerable workers with limited choices, particularly formerly incarcerated workers. These shops, according to the union, are able to use the threat of violating parole and re-incarceration to keep wages low.

“You can’t tell us we’re not competitive because we’re competing against coerced labor,” said Tamir Rosenblum, general counsel for the Mason Tenders District Council. “There are all of these leverage points that the employer has over its paroled workforce.”

The union has called out several companies for such practices. The most public example played out through a series of legal fights between the union’s subsidiary Local 79 and TradeOff Construction Services. In July, TradeOff agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle sexual harassment and other allegations brought by state Attorney General Letitia James. At a press conference announcing the settlement, representatives from Local 79 referred to TradeOff as a body shop. The company ceased operations in August.

In September, the union launched a campaign against body shops citywide.

Joining the union is an option for formerly incarcerated individuals, but it takes time and knowledge to navigate the process. Unions typically recruit apprentices once or twice a year — though this has been disrupted by the pandemic. And rising through the ranks requires hundreds of hours on the job in addition to classroom training.

“Once you come home from prison, everyone welcomes you home, but 30 days later you’ve got bills,” said John Simmons, who started working for Marin Laborers five years ago after his release. The union has referred to Marin as a body shop. “I worked there because I had to work, and because I was afraid to go back to prison.”

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Simmons said he had a “sense of loyalty” to the company because they gave him “a shot when no one else would” but became disillusioned even as he ascended the ranks to foreman. The pay, he felt, wasn’t commensurate with the daily dangers of the job.

“They didn’t care what happened to me, as long as they made their money off me,” he said.

He has since joined Local 79.

Jeffrey Marin, president of the Marin Organization, said his company is simply the “nonunion version of its union counterparts” and not a body shop. He said the firm doesn’t take advantage of formerly incarcerated individuals but offers them opportunities and has “assisted employees in moving out of homeless shelters, back into apartments, and becoming contributing members of our community.”

“If anything, we’d be happy to pay our employees more, but the market doesn’t allow it,” he said.
“You can’t do more, otherwise you are going to be priced out of business.”

Nonunion general labor firms have proliferated in the city over the past decade, and unions have struggled to maintain a foothold, particularly in the affordable housing market. In November, Local 79 reached an agreement with L+M Development Partners that secured work for the union on at least four housing projects. As part of the deal, the union agreed to a 35 percent wage cut.

To better compete on high-rise projects, the union has introduced a blended rate on them. Those projects employ highly skilled journeymen as well as workers who are paid at a lower rate.

Mike Hellstrom, president of the Mason Tenders’ District Council, said the union wants to ensure that the next mayor doesn’t sacrifice worker wages for the sake of a higher volume of affordable housing construction. He said the candidates have generally been receptive to this concern and the union’s call for “real middle-class wages.”

“The next mayor has to, in our opinion, be able to look at the affordable housing crisis in a more comprehensive way,” he said.