NY Carpenters' Union Embraces Immigrant Organizing

This story originally appeared in Labor Notes.

It wasn't long ago that unionized carpenters were more likely to attack immigrant workers as they worked on construction sites than welcome them into a union hall.

"In the early 1990s, the union would go to non-union jobs and threaten to call--and sometimes call--immigration on the workers. It was a 'wrecking crew' situation," said Greg Butler, a United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) member in New York City.

The animosity between unionized Carpenters and their non-union, sometimes immigrant, counterparts was fueled by the replacement of unionized workers by lower-wage, non-union Black and Latino workers throughout the industry in the last 30 years. A history of building trades locals segregated by race and ethnic identity heightened those tensions.

"As more immigrants came to New York, they gravitated towards non-union building trades and employers could pay them $7 an hour," said Butler. "The union has had to recognize the reality that the only way to organize is to start organizing the immigrant workers."

While it hasn't happened overnight, the union has been making attempts to bridge the gap between unionized and non-union carpenters in the area.

Recent small-scale campaigns by the UBC in New York could pave the way for an increase in the number of immigrant workers in the ranks. Worker-to-worker organizing models and the support of Carpenters members have brought dozens of immigrant workers into the union in the last year--though contracts have been harder to win.

Taking Chances

On 18th Street in Manhattan this June, a typical scene unfolded: 30 unionized carpenters picketed outside a non-union construction project where workers were preparing to pour concrete for the foundation of a new condominium.

But what happened next could portend a new phase in the acrimonious relationship between immigrant workers and the building trades. Amidst applause and cheers of "come out!" from their union counterparts, 15 non-union immigrant workers walked off the job, knowing they'd never be able to return.

Walk-out participant Shavan Agard, an immigrant from Ghana who's worked construction jobs in the New York area for more than two years, said workers were tired of being promised one wage and earning another. The choice to walk off, he said, boiled down to the day-to-day realities of working for non-union construction.

"The wages, the hours you worked, they pushed you a lot on the job," Agard said. "If you get injured on the job you have no benefits. They promise you one thing and you don't get it. They can fire you for any reason."

Agard, along with other immigrant workers who walked off, joined the Carpenters and now works on a union site and receives benefits.

"You've got to take chances," Agard said. "Construction workers fear getting into the union and getting out of work, but that's not true. In non-union construction, if the job is closed, too bad, you have to keep looking elsewhere."

While the Carpenters union has struggled to organize immigrant workers, union members supported the walk out. "Part of what you need to do to organize non-union workers is to organize your own workers to support the campaign," said Andres Puerta, who's been organizing immigrant workers for the UBC. "Carpenters in New York are aggressive, proud union members and part of that identity is that they support these campaigns."

Winning in Defeat

Organizing immigrant workers in the construction trades has proven difficult as immigrant workers are vulnerable to employer threats, work in job sites scattered widely across the city, and are often overlooked by union strategies that aim for larger workplaces--and quick campaigns.

To make it worse, employer retaliation can be hard to fight in small shops, and long proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board gives employers even more time to mount an anti-union campaign.

When the Carpenters attempted to organize largely Mexican immigrant scaffolding workers in the Bronx, organizers began a campaign that's still ongoing nearly two years later, with little hope for a union at the company.

In spring of 2006, Carpenters organizers began reaching out to workers at Colgate Scaffold. Organizers met with the workers when they got off work and soon the union message spread throughout the workforce.

The largely Mexican workforce attracted the attention of TEPEYAC, a Mexican community organization, who lent their support and met with the workers early in the organizing campaign. The NLRB held the unionization vote in July 2006 and the workers voted in the union.

Colgate didn't take the news of their employees' new union well. The company claimed that workers had been intimidated into joining the union, and Puerta said two workers--both were relatives of the general manager--testified against the union.

The company won, and the vote was overturned. The campaign pressed on, company and union traded another round, and then a third election was scheduled for December 2007.

But attrition and a drawn-out NLRB process dragged on the union's strength. They encouraged pro-union workers to join the union and leave the company. Nearly 20 workers joined their ranks--a result the Carpenters count as a success, even if the company will never have a contract.

Another ongoing organizing campaign against EMC Construction highlights the new role immigrants have in the UBC. More than 80 workers, most of whom are immigrants from Europe and South America, worked in lower Manhattan building hotels for anti-union EMC. Union organizers met with workers at their homes in New Jersey, often late into the night.

As workers began organizing each other and attending more union meetings, the union coordinated demonstrations in front of the construction site. On Good Friday, 2006 about 70 members demonstrated in front of a job site on West 26th. Organizers and members locked arms and prevented a concrete truck from entering the site in a show of civil disobedience. While members eventually dispersed, three union representatives were arrested.

Thirty Irish and South American workers filed unpaid wage claims with the state because they weren't receiving overtime pay, even when they sometimes worked 70 hours a week.

According to Puerta, the New York attorney general took the case on civil-rights grounds because Irish immigrants were being paid $10 more an hour than South American immigrants doing the same work.

"It was the Irish immigrants who said, 'look, it's not fair, we perform the same work and we get paid more than these guys do,'" Puerta said.

The union is waiting for the civil rights case to go forward and for the workers to receive their back pay. In the meantime, several EMC workers joined the Carpenters.

Even when matched against two anti-union construction employers in the Big Apple, immigrant construction workers are making strides. "The current environment for immigrants in this country makes it hard for these workers to put up a struggle," Puerta said.

What it Takes

At the moment, organizing continues at construction sites throughout the New York area, including one in Brooklyn, where West African, Polish, and South and Central American immigrants are building a Sheraton hotel. Employees of U.S. Reinforced Concrete, they lost their first union election after employer intimidation. The union filed a claim against the company with the NLRB and hopes for a second election.

Organizing immigrant workers in the trades will continue to pose big challenges, but for newly unionized carpenters, a good strategy can mean the difference between having a union job--or not.

According to Puerta, the Carpenters have embraced a strategy of grassroots organizing that includes training members how to do house visits, build community coalitions, and gain worker support. In addition, the union has put resources into educating members about the roots of the labor movement and the role immigrants played.

As immigrant workers trickle into the union in New York, what would it take to make it a flood?

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