With Laborers Local 79 leading the charge, union demolition workers, construction workers, carpenters, bricklayers, and more have rallied multiple times in the past month outside the Chelsea Terminal Warehouse in New York City to protest the mishandling of workers’ pensions and the exploitation, union busting, wage theft, and hazardous conditions workers have experienced at the job site. As Dean Moses reports in The Villager, “Many of the Laborers are immigrant demolition workers, also called los demolicionsitas, and construction workers who say that they have been deprived of healthcare throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to face intimidation and threats for trying to unionize Terminal Warehouse. Protesters named several culprits—three being New Line Structures, ECD NY and Alba Services—which, they alleged, have a history of wage theft and permitting hazardous working conditions.” TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez talks to Chaz Rynkiewicz, Vice President and Director of Organizing for Laborers Local 79, about the unjust firing of three demolicionsitas (also known as the “Alba3”) and the fight to protect union and non-union workers alike.

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Transcript

Chaz Rynkiewicz:       My name is Chaz Rynkiewicz. I’m the director of organizing for Laborers’ Local 79 in New York City. We have approximately 10,000 members, general conditions on the construction site, [inaudible] pending, demolition are our primary jurisdiction, we cover the five boroughs in New York City. And yeah, that’s who I am and that’s what I’m doing out there, kicking ass for the working class.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Hell yeah. Well, welcome, everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and supported entirely by listeners like you.

So, as y’all heard at the top, we are honored to be joined by Chaz from Laborers’ Local 79 in New York to talk about a crucial struggle going on over there that has been sorely underreported. And of course, there’s a lot of news going on in the world right now, and so we understand that it’s easy for us to only take in so much and not be able to stay on top of all the news that’s happening. But we have to do our best to stay committed to one another and to fight for one another however we can.

And the fight going on in New York that Local 79 is involved in has to do with the exploitative conditions at the Chelsea Terminal Warehouse, where a lot of demolition workers work for the company Alba, and some of those workers were even unjustly fired after speaking out about the exploitative conditions. So, we wanted to bring Chaz on to walk us through this, and to better know what’s going on and what listeners can do to show support.

So, Chaz, I was wondering if you could just take the reins here and lay out the scene for folks who may just be hearing about this right now.

Chaz Rynkiewicz:        Sure. So, I guess I’ll start at the top, Chelsea Terminal Warehouse. It’s an old landmarked historic warehouse over on the West side of New York City, West side of Manhattan. It’s a whole city block. It’s a big building. It’s a low rise building, it’s not a high rise because it’s originally a warehouse. And there’s a major conversion going on there, and they’re taking what we call a total demolition in our job, although the building is not completely coming down. They’re taking the roof off, most of the walls, the exterior walls, got to stay up for landmark purposes, but then they’re putting a tower above the building.

So, it’s a big job. It’s a major job. It’s a very complicated job. And that’s where it starts. There’s good union contractors originally that have been in the job where people are going to make a decent day’s pay with some benefits and medical coverage and a retirement plan. And a voice on the job, which is as important as anything also. It’s safety issues, doing the work the right way, and working in decent humane conditions.

And from our understanding with our union contractors, the numbers are right there, but Columbia Property Trust, who owns the property, they make a strategic decision to go with one of the most notorious general contractors in New York City, New Line Structures. And New Line, they do anything and everything they can to cut workers’ pay to get the numbers down. That’s just who they are. If the numbers are close, they’re going non-union. Sometimes they’ll go non-union even if the numbers are a little bit higher just to not have a union presence on the job. Yeah, they’ll tell you, oh yeah, no, well, there’s union on the job too. It’s a sophisticated job, so they have to have some union on there. But for the most part, the vast majority of the job’s being done non-union.

So, the first phase of the job is the demolition. It’s a large, complicated demolition project, and our union contractor doesn’t get the job. And they tell us that their numbers were right there. Our union contractor says that their numbers were lower actually, that they came in lower. But they went with a non-union company, no surprise. When New Line Structures is involved, they’re trying to go non-union wherever they can. So, that’s the layout. Does that kind of paint an accurate picture of where we’re at there?

Maximillian Alvarez:    Yeah. I think maybe just to zoom out even a little bit more and to clarify what I was saying in the introduction, we’re talking about a job here, a demolition job, a complex one, as Chaz was saying, at the Chelsea Terminal Warehouse. And the company overseeing this job, New Line, as you said, New Line Structures is notoriously anti-union, and has opted for, as it always does, non-union workers to fill the majority of roles on this job. And so, I think that gives us a good place to start. So, can I ask as a follow-up to that, I imagine many folks listening to this have no fucking clue what goes into that kind of demolition. So, could you give us a sense of how many folks are working on a project like this, what the different roles entail, and I guess what that job looks like?

Chaz Rynkiewicz:     Sure. So, a job like this probably has 100 demolition workers on it working probably 15 hours a day. There’s a lot of work going on there. The roof of the building has got to come off. While they’re taking the roof of the building off they got to shore up the walls, because the roof is holding the building together. They got to go in and take out structural beams in some cases, put in new structural beams in some cases, and then shore it up because they’re going to go up much higher than the building originally was. So, you have cranes in there, you have heavy equipment, whether it’s Bobcat that you would drive around with big chopping guns on the end to chop through the concrete or just manual guys chopping.

There’s a lot of asbestos in there. It’s an older building, so there’s still asbestos in there. So, you have some asbestos abatement going on while there’s some demolition going on. We’ve found, the workers have reported being directed to take out asbestos in there, so we’ve caught that, we’ve documented that. We’ve found situations where they were transporting the asbestos illegally. There’s an investigation going on with that with the Department of Sanitation. They’re investigating that. They followed the trucks, they watched where they dumped, the transfer stations.

So, that’s kind of what it is. It’s very dangerous work, because demolition is probably the most dangerous, not probably, there’s more injuries coming out of demolition than any other work in the city. And the construction industry is the most dangerous industry in the city. We love our police and our firefighters, but a lot more construction workers are dying every year. It’s not even comparable, and demolition being the most dangerous of that. So, that’s kind of the work in a nutshell. It’s hard, grueling, physical, dangerous work. They got to take out the interior of the building while maintaining the exterior of the building, and then put up a new building on top of it with the structure still partially there.

So, that’s kind of what it looks like on the construction end at this phase. There’s a lot of closing of the… Cutting and capping all the gas lines coming in and all the plumbing lines coming in, they got to cut them off and cap them off, but yet they got to be up and running in the future too. So, they got to preserve all that stuff going on there also.

Maximillian Alvarez:     So, you’re saying it’s not just one guy with a cartoon wrecking ball going at a massive building.

Chaz Rynkiewicz:     Oh no, no. No, there’s no wrecking balls in New York City. The nature of New York City is the underground infrastructure and the buildings being so close to each other, you just can’t have the vibrations and the debris accumulated like it would be with a wrecking ball or implosion. They’ll do implosions in other cities where they blow it up and then scoop it up. Not in New York, it’s got to come down brick by brick, hand by hand, you can only drop certain sections of… Sometimes they’ll go in and they’ll cut out a section and drop it to the floor below. Now we see, on union jobs, they cut out the right size section. I’ve seen jobs that are non-union, they’re rushing it, they’ll cut out a larger section than they’re allowed to just trying to rush the job, and it collapses other floors below, we’ve had buildings collapse behind that. So, that’s the nature of New York City. There’s no implosion. Brick by brick it’s coming down, and there’s 100 guys working there.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Man. And just thinking about all the precision that’s required for that, not just for taking down a single building, but like you said, in such a compact place like New York City where you’ve got so many other factors to deal with really just underscores the need to have that union presence, those high standards for the work that you do, and to make sure that everyone is doing what they’re doing safely, and is being taken care of for the important work that they’re doing. And that leads me into the struggle that we’re here to discuss, because if I recall correctly, Local 79 was involved in a rally that took place earlier in February. Could you tell listeners a bit about the nature of that rally and what has been going on over there with y’all?

Chaz Rynkiewicz:       Yeah. We could talk, there’s a couple rallies in February. We have a decent daily presence there every day protesting the conditions going on there. And we ramped up a rally recently, PIMCO. PIMCO is an investment firm that uses a lot of pension money from a lot of unions nationwide. CalPERS is one of them, that’s California, some pension funds out there. They’re just using a lot of pension funds. My own union has money in PIMCO.

And it originally starts with – Let me give you the detailed version. So it starts with Columbia Property Trust, they’re doing the job originally, and there’s pension money in there. There’s CalPERS money, which is California pension funds that are in there. We’re reaching out to CalPERS, but they have a company that oversees their investment and they’re saying, no, there are no problems there. And it’s like, no, there are problems. We have videotape of asbestos being hauled away illegally. And there’s a Department of Sanitation investigation there. They raided the transfer station where the asbestos was done. And that’s all documented. And they’re like, oh, we’ll look into it. When you let people look into their own problems and do their own investigation of themselves, they come back with the conclusion that people do. Oh, no, we didn’t find anything there, and the Department of Sanitation said that there’s been nothing that they could talk to about it right now. Of course there’s nothing, it’s an ongoing investigation. They’re investigating criminal dumping of illegal asbestos dumping. So, they cover it up.

But while that’s going on we go to Columbia Property Trust, and in the process there’s this bigger company, PIMCO, that is buying out Columbia Property Trust. It’s a big deal. It’s a billion dollar deal or something to buy out this company. I don’t even remember the numbers off the top of [my head], it’s a massive buyout. And we’re reaching out to PIMCO saying, don’t buy a bad investment. Look, shit, we’re shareholders of PIMCO. Don’t buy, it’s a bad investment. We got billions and billions of dollars in pension money with them, don’t buy a bad investment. They go ahead and purchase it anyway.

So, we go out there to protest their financing of a job of this nature. We survey the workers there, we ask all the workers there, none of them are being offered healthcare. You got 96 workers at the time working through the pandemic, none of them have healthcare. That’s part of the problem. It’s Obamacare that becomes illegal. So, this is who you’re investing in, companies that are willingly breaking laws to keep salaries down. They’re not offering them healthcare, they’re working in dangerous… So, we’re investing in from PIMCO.

And so, that’s the rally we’re having. At the rally, a bunch of workers from this company, Alba Demolition, the worst demolition company in New York City. They’re the type of company, these guys take pride in screwing workers over. They’re happy anytime… They’re the type of guy when the owners are sitting around, they’re high fiving each other like, yeah, we got them working for nothing. Yeah, we just fired a guy who asked for a raise, you’re fired. That’s the type of mentality this company has.

And we had documented cases where… We had a worker one time before work come over and start talking to one of the union organizers, just outside. They fired the guy. Fired the guy just for talking to another human being before work on his own time. They fired him for that. We went to court, we won the case. He’s got to get back pay. He’s got to get reinstated to the jobs. But that’s just who they are. That’s just how wicked they are. You talked to a union guy? You’re fired. That’s just how evil they are. They don’t care that these guys are breaking their ass, risking their life to make them rich. They don’t care about any of that. So, that’s who we’re dealing with. So, we have the rally with PIMCO, a bunch of the workers come out to support the rally.

And recently, this company is so evil they… They run a lot of types of scams. And I won’t get into how they’re running the scams because there’s a lot of investigations going on, and we’re going to prevail with all these investigations, but it takes time. In the meantime, these freaking criminal thugs, they take the money and run at the end of the day. They don’t care. They’ll dissolve the company and they’ll get in trouble for the workers comp thing and they’ll just move on. But they run all types of scams.

And one of the things they did is they put a bounty out on workers that were filing workers’ comp claims for getting injured on the job. It’s just as disgusting as you can get. Imagine working in the most dangerous industry in the city and you get hurt, legit on a job, and they’re offering rewards to all your coworkers of $5,000 if anybody will come forward with evidence to prove that you’re faking the injury somehow. So, I forget how they did it. I think they sent out a notification to every individual or they posted it around all of their jobs, or a combination of the two or whatever it was, they reached out to every worker and they listed the names. It was like 20-something workers in the last several years had filed claims. They gave the workers names and everything. If you have anything on so and so, come forward, we’ll give you $5,000.

Now, you’ve got to remember these are low wage workers. Some people might be desperate looking for a way to just make something up even to feed their family. The population of workers with Alba Demolition is immigrants and reentry population. Mostly immigrants. But they really only hire vulnerable workforces. If you’re re-entry, you’re on parole. They’re looking for parolees that don’t want to violate parole and they’re not going to… And mostly the immigrants, we don’t ask status. It’s the workers that work and we represent them, whether they’re union or not, we represent them. We fight for all workers, not just our members. They’re doing demolition work, they deserve representation. But a lot of them might have some issues that they don’t want to come forward with also. If you don’t have your paper, if you don’t have documentation properly, you can’t collect unemployment if you get laid off. There’s just certain things that people will come forward for.

So anyway, these workers come out, and one of them gets on stage, and – Six of them come out, and one of them gets on stage and talks about the bounty, the work conditions, the pay conditions, everything. He just gives a speech. And two days after that, two business days after that, day three, it’s 96 people on the job, and three of the workers that came out to support the rally, they fire them. They send them a text on their way home and they say, well, look, we got no work for you tomorrow. Reach out to this foreman and he’ll send you someplace else. They don’t send them anyplace else, they just go home and they tell them to reach out, and don’t even get back to them for at least a few days.

So, that was the first rally we had. And they tell everybody on the job, six people came out for this rally [inaudible]. There’s 96 people on the job, they just happen to tell three people that have been working there for months, we don’t have work for you tomorrow? And they don’t send them anyplace else. And they also say, and we’re going to be getting rid of another three people too. Like, okay, we know who the other three are going to be too because only six came out.

So, the next rally we have a couple days later, I think that’s where you start hearing how the story is going. We hold another rally in support of those workers, demanding they get their jobs back. We file NLRB, we file an unfair labor practice, demanding immediate reinstatement, terms and conditions of previous employment, back pay, all that. We do a rally, the borough president Mark Levine comes out, Sen. Ramos, chair of the New York State Labor Committee, she comes out to support them. We have a nice rally and we support the workers there.

No surprise, the day after the rally they’re calling the workers like, yeah, you’re going back to work. We made a big deal out of it, but we’re going to support… We still have the unfair labor charge against them because they didn’t get returned to their same job with their same conditions and the back pay they’re still entitled to. And they moved into another job where apparently there’s less overtime over there so they’re making less. It’s one of those things. But that was the rally we had the other day and supported them. We had hundreds of union members come out on their lunch break and support these guys, and we’re going to support them no matter what. We’ll put all our resources into it because harm to one is harm to all, and we’re there for them. We’re there for them.

So, that’s where we’re at. That was the rally that we had the other day, and that’s where we’re at. We still got that unfair labor charge going and we’re going to pursue it, and it’s not the first unfair labor… Like I said, we had the previous worker… Shit, workers on their own before we even started really going after this company, when they were starting to grow, there was one, I think it was a $1.5 million settlement for a wage claim. They weren’t paying proper overtime, they were paying cash off the books. They were doing what bottom feeders do. That’s what they were doing. Now they’re doing it on a big, high profile job using pension money to do this stuff.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Man. And well, just amazing that y’all are showing out for these workers who were unjustly fired, and fighting for them to get their jobs back, get that back pay, filing the unfair labor practices charge. And that’s where the story reached me, was when, in the preparations for that most recent rally. And I saw the hashtag of the #Alba3 as those three workers who were fired by Alba Services for coming to the previous rally that y’all were putting on to protest what was going on with the pensions. So, do I have that right? We’re talking about a particular job site at the Chelsea Terminal where you have union and non-union workers, and the union workers with Local 79 put on this rally a couple weeks ago to protest the bullshit that was going on with your pensions. And some of the non-union workers on the job came to that rally and three of them were laid off, and so then you did a follow-up rally in support of them. I’m just walking that through for listeners. Do I have that right?

Chaz Rynkiewicz:    Yeah, you have that mostly correct. So, the workers at the rally, the only workers that were from that job on the rally, there were hundreds of union workers there that came to support the non-union workers that were there, none of them were from the job. The only workers that came out from the job were non-union workers. And right now there’s hardly, I don’t think there’s any union workers on the job whatsoever right now. So, at the rally where the non-union workers came out, you had union carpenters there, you had union bricklayers there, you had union concrete laborers there, you had union elevator constructors there, just to support non-union workers on that job. So, they become the Alba 3 when they get fired. Again, that’s the rally after the… That’s the second rally, to support the Alba 3.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Gotcha. Okay. Well, thank you for laying that out. Again, as we always do for listeners, we’ll include links in the show notes. There aren’t a whole lot, but there have been a couple of stories written up about this, so we will include those so that y’all can get that background context, but that’s why we bring guys like Chaz on to really help us understand what’s what’s going on here. And I really, really appreciate you taking the time, man. And I wanted to ask where things stand now. So, like you said, the Alba 3 were rehired and reassigned to a different site. You’re still pushing the unfair labor practices charge and all that good stuff. So, where do things stand now in this fight, and what can listeners who are hearing this right now do to show support for y’all and your brothers and sisters in construction there in New York, and demolition?

Chaz Rynkiewicz:    So, one of the things we’re asking people to do is, on a workers’ right issue, one campaign we’re taking up… In New York there was the Excluded Workers Fund. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. The Excluded Workers Fund came out during COVID for workers that couldn’t collect unemployment. You could be working on the books, if your documentation, your paperwork isn’t proper, then you can’t collect unemployment. You might even be paying into the system and you can’t collect. So, New York state set up a fund during COVID, the height of it, to pay these workers unemployment. But that fund is out of money now, and there’s a campaign, there’s legislation to make that fund permanent.

And so, one thing these workers need is the ability to collect unemployment. This way they’re not forced into certain work conditions where they just got to continue working, and have a little more flexibility. So, when you hear about the Excluded Worker Fund, contact your local politician about the worker fund if you’re in the five boroughs in New York City – And actually it’s the state law, so anywhere in New York state, any politician in the state. It’s important that we get the Excluded Worker Fund funded so these workers have a little more security in their lives and they don’t have to work in certain conditions.

With that being said, another thing you could do is, the investors there. If you’re a union member, reach out to your… We’re reaching out to leadership of unions all over the country asking them to reach out to PIMCO, but individuals could help ramp that up too. Ask your leadership if you have money invested through PIMCO, which almost every union does, and just, PIMCO, why is our money being used this way? Why are our pension funds being invested this way? This is just crazy. We’re building our own gallows. We’re using pension money to build our hangman’s noose, because how are we funding major non-union projects like this with our pension money?

So, harm to one is harm to all, and if we don’t stop these behaviors by so-called the PIMCOs of the world that pride themselves in using union funds and say that they care, do you really care if you’re not putting the research into this? So, you could also reach out to PIMCO on that. And come out to some of the rallies there. Once you start getting those hashtags out to people – And we’re going to be doing rallies in the future to support the Alba 3 and Alba workers in general – When you start seeing those hashtags come out, support the workers. You’re not supporting us, you’re supporting these workers. You’re supporting decent jobs. You’re supporting medical coverage for children. That’s what you’re supporting. So, those are some of the ways that people can help. That was the second part of your question. What was the first part? I forgot already.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Nah, I thought that was great.

Chaz Rynkiewicz:       Okay.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Oh, right. I guess the first part was just, where do things stand now? Like with the fight against Alba. But I think that we’ve kind of covered that, unless you think that there’s something that you wanted to hit.

Chaz Rynkiewicz:        Yeah, no, that’s kind of where we’re at right now. The fight is going to continue against Alba. We’re on top of them. The day after the Alba 3 were sent back to work, there was another Alba job where workers are starting to get more confidence in standing up for themselves. Rallies like what we did the other day, it’s like, wow, these guys actually came out and they’re fighting for us now. And then they got our coworkers back to their jobs. Maybe not the same spot, but they were able to get them back. Everybody knew what was going on there. Everybody knew in the company why those guys got fired. They could say what they wanted, everybody knew. And it’s designed to get workers to be scared, to stand up and go to rallies and stuff.

And you know what, when we got them put back to work, there were workers on another job that said, hey, look, they’re asking us. They reached out to one of our organizers and were like, hey, we know that these pipes they want us to take out have asbestos on them. What do we do? And you guys do what you want to do but we’re telling you, you have a right not to illegally remove asbestos. That can kill you. You got families you got. Don’t take out the asbestos if you don’t want to. And if they fire you for refusing to remove asbestos illegally we’ll be there for you too. We’ll have 500 guys outside that job protesting that job, and we’ll have unfair labor practices, strikes going on for you, and we’ll be getting you reinstated to your job too, because they can’t force you to remove asbestos.

So, the workers are starting to stand up for themselves now. And that’s where the world gets scary. What’s the company going to do next? But no matter what, we’re going to be there for these workers. We have their backs. So, no matter what that employer tries, we’re going to fight for these workers. So, that’s where the fight is at now. The workers are starting to understand. New York is a very pro-immigrant state. There’s certain laws in there where they don’t have to live in fear. And there are unions out there that have their back, and there’s New Yorkers out there that have their back, and we’re going to continue to have their back, and they’re going to start demanding real jobs, real entry into the economy.

We like to talk about real entry into the economy. That means a living wage, but also means medical coverage for the family, a retirement plan so you don’t have to stress what you’re going to do years from now, especially when you’re busting your ass in a dangerous industry like construction. But we’re going to fight with these workers, side by side with them, until they have real entry into the New York City economy.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Hell yeah. I thought that was a killer spot to end on, my man. What do you think?

Chaz Rynkiewicz:      I’m good. I’m good, Max. Thank you so much, man. We greatly appreciate you, everything you guys are doing there. It’s great work, needs to be done. Not enough people do it. There’s a lot of issues that distract us today from some of the real issues. Some are real, some not so real, right?

Maximillian Alvarez:     Right.

Chaz Rynkiewicz:     But when the Russians are bombing the Ukraine, that’s real. When people are trying to distract with some other types of bullshit stories out there, it’s not so real. These are real lives that affect everybody. A rising tide raises all boats, and harm to one is harm to all. I know I’m repeating that, but that’s life. That’s life. That’s the real.

Maximillian Alvarez:    I can’t say it enough, brother. I thought you hit the nail on the head. And we’re always here, so you got my contact info now. So, hit me up if you ever want to do a follow-up, if there are other –

Chaz Rynkiewicz:     Other stories? Yeah, sure.

Maximillian Alvarez:     …Stories that you need us to look into, just hit me up anytime, man.

Chaz Rynkiewicz:        Great. Thanks, Max.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
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