Laborers Join with Worker Centers

The Laborers Union has an ambitious goal: to organize in the largely non-union residential construction industry. To kick off the campaign the union chartered two locals on the east coast. Both are in partnership with worker centers whose members are day laborers and low-wage residential construction workers.

The new unions, Local 55 in north and central New Jersey and Local 10 in suburban New York City, include many immigrants from South and Central America. These partnerships with worker centers emerged naturally between day labor organizers, who’ve grown tired of facing unscrupulous non-union residential construction contractors alone, and the Laborers, who have wanted to gain ground in the industry—it’s estimated that more than 90 percent of the residential construction market is non-union.

However, the locals’ plan to win over contractors by offering flexible workers trained in all trades, at a rate of $11 an hour less than the Laborers’ normal rate, could ruffle feathers among other building trades unions—even though they long ago abandoned the residential market to low-wage, non-union contractors.

The new locals, in part, make real the agreement reached in 2006 between the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the traditional union movement. The AFL-CIO allowed NDLON’s worker center affiliates to join central labor councils and discussions between NDLON and Change to Win unions led organizers to the Laborers.

2009 NYC May Day demophoto by Mamita Mala

Local 55 is one part Laborers and two parts worker center. It includes New Labor, a worker center with offices in New Brunswick, Lakewood, and soon, Newark, as well as Casa Freehold in Freehold, New Jersey. Hector Fuentes, the local’s business manager, said the NDLON affiliates have gained the trust of construction workers, which will help the local get past the skepticism of immigrant workers who’ve had bad experiences with unions or been shut out of them.

Marien Casillas Pabellon, New Labor’s executive director, said her center faced the problem common to worker centers: much of their work is "putting out fires" around stolen wages and health and safety violations. The more success the centers have fighting wayward employers, the more calls they get and the thinner they’re stretched. Pabellon said Local 55 will enable workers to negotiate for better wages and conditions instead of always playing defense just to get employers to pay minimum wage.

The Laborers are renovating a building in Newark as union headquarters. For now, the regional union is fronting the cash for the new locals, but organizers hope to become financially independent once they’ve built a membership.

Joint Ownership & Flexibility

The union and workers centers had to find a way to work together that addresses concerns often raised during joint projects. "How unions work internally, it’s much different than a non-profit—almost a cultural difference," said Nadia Marin-Molina of the Workplace Project on Long Island.

Worker center organizers want to make sure they have equal footing with the better-resourced Laborers. Local 10′s executive board is composed of Laborers reps as well as staffers from the Workplace Project, El Centro del Inmigrantes of Staten Island, the Latin American Workers Project, and a national NDLON representative. The New Jersey local’s e-board is set up similarly.

The New Jersey local will also contain new members from the Laborers’ program to train unemployed or underemployed Newark workers in weatherization (see Labor Notes, July 2009). About 100 are members now, but the local is going to grow after a recent agreement with a residential contractors association that will hire 175 workers. That influx, Fuentes said, is "going to start shaping the local."

Local 10 in New York is facing what Marin-Molina calls the trades’ "chicken versus the egg problem." In order to get members into the local, it needs to find employers willing to pay union rates. Organizers say the bust in the housing market crippled their efforts, but Fuentes says they’re training workers so that "when the jobs come back, we have the people."

Blurring The Lines

According to Fuentes, Laborers in commercial construction make $29 an hour with benefits estimated at $19 an hour, while new Laborers in residential construction will earn $18 with $5 in benefits. The locals hope to persuade contractors to recognize the union by eventually training their members on more aspects of building a home, giving employers the flexibility not found on other construction sites, Fuentes said.

Any hint of employer-friendly organizing is likely to stir bad blood among construction trades unions, which are quick to defend jurisdiction and craft boundaries. Fuentes said other trades are "facing a lot of issues by not being willing or able to reduce their commercial rates to do residential." Only the Carpenters have talked about new member organizing in residential construction. Two trades staffers said that when the Laborers approached the Carpenters about combining efforts, the idea of organizing immigrants wasn’t well received.

The Carpenters, who left both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, have tried wall-to-wall organizing in commercial construction, have launched raids, scaled down wages, and crushed internal dissent in the attempt. They earned a rebuke at this fall’s AFL-CIO convention where the federation resolved to start a carpenters organizing committee in response.

Fuentes said the new Laborers locals are different. They aren’t raiding or crossing trade lines because other unions are unwilling or unable to organize immigrant residential workers.

New Jersey Laborers

Union presence in residential construction has dropped off precipitously since the post-World War II building boom. In the 1950s and 1960s, density was estimated as high as 50 percent. Mike Rabourn, a researcher for the Northeast Council of Carpenters and the author of a 2008 study of unionization in residential construction, said unions have "very little" presence these days. His regional union claims just 5 percent.

Rabourn said the lack of union power in residential has been the "elephant in the room" for building trades unions, especially this decade when more than half the money going into construction was in residential. But with building trade unions fighting to hold the line in a down construction market, starting a new organizing campaign isn’t top priority for most.

Spokespeople from several building trades unions declined to comment on the Laborers’ effort, with one from the IBEW predicting "a lot of tension." Rabourn downplayed potential conflict, pointing out that jurisdictional lines aren’t clear because the industry has been non-union for so long. If the Laborers are successful, he said, it could change other unions’ ideas about what is possible and spur new attempts to organize. "It’s hard to predict how people up the union hierarchy would react," Rabourn said, "but if one organization is going to invest resources to organize a sector that no one else is going to organize, wall-to-wall makes sense."


Tiffany Ten Eyck is a Detroit-based journalist and labor activist who writes on labor and workplace issues. Ten Eyck is on staff at Labor Notes.