By a WORKING CARPENTER
On Oct. 5, a recently fired carpenter, Samuel Perry, 42, arrived at a Midtown Manhattan job site to pick up his last paycheck. He shot his foreman, 37-year-old Christopher Sayers, twice, killing him. He then turned the gun on himself. Both men were members of Carpenters’ Local 212, a concrete construction local that aims to reclaim concrete construction in the city, where 70% of concrete work has gone non-union.
Sayers was praised by co-workers as a “good guy” and a good foreman, while some newspaper reports said that Perry was a “hothead.” Newspaper accounts were quick to highlight Perry’s past criminal record, but this is a distraction. It would be easy to vilify Perry and turn the discussion towards a discussion of the toxic effects of masculinity and gun culture, but there’s more at stake here. (1)
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an increase in workplace homicides of “2 percent, to 417 cases in 2015, with shootings increasing by 15 percent.” (2) We have to ask, how do construction unions and workers deal with the question of workplace violence?
Rowing the boat for Pharaoh
The atmosphere in commercial construction is filled with stress and the pressure to perform. Deadlines loom and the urgency of meeting them is intense. This means that subcontractors, especially in concrete and interior systems, who often operate on a slim profit margin, engage in speed-up, cut corners on safety, and generally mistreat their workers. Foremen are under pressure to meet production goals and will push workers to perform. This creates a situation that one of my co-workers calls “rowing the boat for Pharaoh.” Solidarity between workers is undermined at every turn in the construction trades.
The threat of firing or layoff is always present. The uncertainty associated with construction work takes a heavy toll on the mental health of workers. Alcoholism and other problems run rampant. The unions, more often than not, are complicit. There is rarely any sort of grievance procedure, the union regularly refers to contractors as our “partners” in the business, and union representatives have been known to threaten to blacklist “unproductive” workers.
Standing up to the foreman over an abusive workplace situation or a safety concern is your ticket to the unemployment line. If you have a problem with a supervisor, your recourse is to quit, get laid off, or start looking for another job. In the feast-or-famine world of construction, economic downturns mean that workers who are not “steady” company people are cast out. Older workers, people of color, and women are often the last hired and the first fired. Workers who haven’t been able to find “steady” employment with contractors are sometimes referred to as “hall trash.”
Change is necessary
The Carpenters union (UBC) itself is an increasingly top-down and bureaucratic institution. Locals and district councils have been consolidated into larger and larger units. For example, the Philadelphia Metropolitan Council of Carpenters was forcibly “consolidated” with the New Jersey based Northeast Regional Council, creating a council that covers New York (excluding New York City), New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. In the process, local unions were dissolved and unified into large mega locals. None of this change in the structure of the Philadelphia carpenters was done in consultation with the members.
The right to vote on union policies or the leadership “teams” is virtually non-existent. The UBC was never a shining example of union democracy, but the ascension of Doug McCarron to the post of General President of the International Union marked a sea change in the internal life of the union. Under the McCarron regime, the union has pursued a more openly class-collaborationist policy, stripped democratic rights of members, and consolidated councils and locals throughout the union. Most members feel alienated from the union.
Union health plans offer little in the way of mental health support, and the general atmosphere of macho behavior puts pressure on workers to “suck it up” or “man up.” Workers can be cold about the personal situations of other workers because the threat of layoff always looms. “Better them than me” is a common thought.
Avoiding future tragedies will require fundamental change in the building trades unions themselves. Democratic unions controlled by the members and based on solidarity and struggle for the rights and living standards of the members is crucial. This requires rebuilding the unions in a way that includes oppressed nationalities and women as equals. Class-collaborationist policies that see the bosses as “partners” have to go. Union benefit plans should increase the support given to members who suffer mental health crises. Cutting the workweek without loss in pay and making sure that the work is shared during slowdowns is necessary. .
Union action to stop speed-up, production quotas, and abusive workplace practices is essential. Workers and foremen should be trained to recognize the signs of mental illness.
Ultimately, the problems of construction unions and members flow from the profit-driven nature of the business. Members build luxury condos while struggling to keep a roof over their own heads. Millions of people remain in substandard housing and pay exorbitant rents, while construction booms in gentrifying areas. This speaks volumes about the perverse nature of an economic system based on greed rather than production for human needs.