By Joshua Reap
New York’s construction union bosses have claimed they want to increase safety for all workers. As explained by Pat Purcell, who runs a jointly managed trust fund of the Mason Tenders District Council and its contractors, the goal was to “develop legislation that would increase safety standards for all workers—union and nonunion alike.”
So why are some of those union bosses now lobbying for a City Council bill that would do just the opposite and give their own members a competitive advantage by letting them avoid any additional safety training?
Unfortunately, that’s the reality of the debate behind the controversial legislation, known as Intro 1447, which would change safety training standards in the city’s construction industry. The council must put a stop to this flawed and politically motivated legislation before it becomes a bad law that only leaves more workers at risk.
First of all, it’s time to stop repeating the myth that union construction worksites in New York City are inherently safer than those of the merit shop, exclusively nonunion or even open-shop worksites that combine union and nonunion workers. The fact is that construction is one of the world’s most dangerous industries and tragic incidents have taken place on union, merit-shop and open-shop sites across the city.
Out of 10 construction fatalities in New York City so far this year, five occurred on union sites and five on either merit-shop or nonunion sites. This means that union worksites have accounted for half of all the fatalities this year, even though they account for a much smaller fraction of all construction sites citywide.
It should remind us all that a comprehensive and effective approach to safety isn’t just about carrying a union card or being a member of a merit shop, regardless of what went into those processes. Yes, union construction workers often receive more hours of training through apprenticeship programs—but even union leaders know the vast majority of that training is about trade and craft skills, not safety protocols.
So when Pat Purcell says legislation should increase safety standards for union and nonunion workers alike, it sounds like it could be a rational approach.
But that’s not what’s actually happening with Intro 1447. A new version of the measure, which is still being discussed behind closed doors, would include a so-called “grandfather” clause that allows union workers to avoid any additional safety training. While other sectors of the industry would bear the responsibility of getting the new training, unions would be “grandfathered” and benefit financially from a city law that lets them cut the line for jobs ahead of merit-shop competitors.
For proof of the unions’ real goal here, just look at the response from Building Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera—New York’s most powerful construction union leader—after we recently urged the City Council to remove the grandfather clause and ensure that any new safety requirements apply to all workers, regardless of affiliation.
LaBarbera said that opposition to the grandfather clause is “nothing more than another rhetorical roadblock to having a comprehensive bill,” and he claimed, without evidence, that union workers already have all the safety training that might be required under Intro 1447. “There is no reason to be trained twice,” he said.
It just doesn’t make sense. One union leader says legislation should increase safety standards for all workers, union and nonunion alike. Another says the City Council should increase safety standards, but they shouldn’t apply to union workers.
For the council, the only answer is to put safety before politics. All workers should mean all, not some.