Fired construction workers speak out against Alba Demolition

Many workplaces are marked by a real tension between different types of workers: undocumented vs. citizens, union vs. non-union, and more. New York City’s Construction and General Building Laborers’ Union Local 79 has been working to overcome these divides by intentionally reaching out to undocumented and non-union workers in the construction trades. And the bosses are taking notice. Recorded in the spring of 2022 from the Local 79 headquarters in Manhattan, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez conducts a Spanish-language interview with Alex Martinez, Walter Martinez, and José Rosas, who were all fired from their jobs at Alba Demolition after they were caught talking to Local 79 organizers on their break. 

Studio: Thomas Hedges

Translation: Jaxx Landry

Post-Production: Oscar Leon, Kayla Rivara, Adam Coley


Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez:  Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The Real News is an independent, viewer-supported, nonprofit media network. We don’t take corporate cash, and we don’t have ads, which means we need each one of you to become monthly sustainers so we can keep bringing y’all coverage of the voices and issues you care about most. Just head on over to therealnews.com/support and donate today. 

When it comes down to it, the single greatest tool the bosses and the ruling class have always had at their disposal to keep working people down is divide and conquer. Whether it’s pitting union workers against non-union workers, white collar against blue collar, older workers against younger workers, workers who are US citizens against undocumented workers or workers in other countries, they are always looking for ways to divide us, because it makes us so much easier to exploit and take advantage of. And that is why it is so crucial, and why it’s so important to highlight when working people fight against that trend and work to overcome their differences so we can build strength collectively and support one another. 

Earlier in 2022, back in the spring, I got to bear witness to one example of workers doing just that. While I was in New York City reporting on worker struggles at Amazon and Starbucks, I also had the pleasure of stopping by the Midtown headquarters of the Construction and General Building Laborers’ Local 79, a union that serves the five boroughs of New York City, and was created in 1996 through the consolidation of ten smaller Laborers’ locals. What the members of Local 79 are doing is really important, and something that folks around the country should take note of; rather than falling into the same old trap of seeing non-union and undocumented workers as their enemies, organizers and members of Local 79 have been working to be supportive allies, fighting to ensure that undocumented workers who were ineligible for government COVID aid programs received the assistance they needed, and fighting to protect the rights and jobs of non-union construction and demolition workers in the city who are being exploited and mistreated by notoriously anti-union, corner-cutting companies like Alba Demolition. 

As journalist and Real News contributor Ashley Bishop reported for The Nation: “Former Alba workers who have since joined Local 79 allege that workplace accidents occur more frequently at Alba-run sites because the company’s workers are typically less experienced, new hires are not provided with proper training, and more seasoned workers are frequently asked to perform jobs outside of their area of expertise. ‘There’s a few companies out there that are operating in the nonunion sector,’ said Chaz Rynkiewicz, vice president and director of organizing for Local 79. ‘Alba, currently, is the biggest exploiter of workers in the demolition industry in New York City.’”

To talk about all of this and more, I was able to sit down in the Local 79 union hall and talk with three demolition workers: Alex Martínez, Walter Martínez, and José Rosas, who all lost their jobs at Alba simply because they had been spotted by management talking to Local 79 organizers outside of work. Now, as you’ll see, we had originally planned to conduct this interview in Spanish with a live interpreter translating, but that didn’t quite work out, so we ended up with a great extended interview in Spanish that we needed to translate and caption. That is why this video took so long to prepare after its initial recording, so I just want to apologize to everyone involved for the delay, and I wanted to ask all of you watching to please give this interview a chance, even if reading the captions takes some time to adjust to. Because it’s really important that we hear these stories too, and that we find ways to support one another across linguistic and other barriers (and if you’d prefer to read the transcript of the interview instead, a link to that will be posted in the description of this video). Thank you for understanding, now here’s my interview with Alex, Walter, and Jose… 

Alex Martínez:  Good morning, my name is Alex Martínez. I’ve worked for Alba for six months, starting in October of last year. Recently – It’s been almost three weeks now – We were laid off, supposedly because not enough work was coming through. So, here we are now, jobless. 

Walter Martínez:  Good morning, my name is Walter Martínez. I’m a worker at Alba Demolition. Casually, three weeks ago, we were unjustifiably left with no job, all for being part of the union – Just for being involved with the union, inviting others to get familiarized with the union and how it can help. And for that reason, above all, we were fired. What they did to us was an unjustified dismissal. They simply told us there would be no more work for us, and that we should look elsewhere. 

José Rosas:  Good morning, I’m José Rosas. Same here, as my friend here already said: They laid us off without any justification. They just told us, you know what? There’s no more work. Stop what you’re doing. The foreman working with us, the guy in charge, is Franklin López, and he said, stop what you’re doing, there’s no more work. We were in shock after hearing that. What happened? And he replied, basically, they don’t want to give you the next job. But, why? I asked. He replied again, all I know is I’m taking a vacation. Do you want to wait around 1 or 2 months without work? Then wait. We were even more shocked. 

So I said, how can this be? Give us an answer, something to help us understand better. He replied, no, that’s it. The bosses just gave out that order. Everybody stop until further notice. For my part, I’m going on a vacation. I don’t know what y’all are gonna do. You wanna wait a month, two months, without a job? That’s your decision.

So we were in shock, couldn’t believe it. Then our foreman arrived, the guy in charge of our group. There are around 10 of us. The foreman’s name is John Henessey. He’s somebody who… I don’t need to talk bad about him. He always helped us however he could. But we were confused, because we asked him, John, what’s going on? Is there work? He said, yes, there’s lots of work. Lots of work here. So I turned to Franklin, who was there, and asked, Franklin, why are you saying there is no work when John, who is more senior than you, is saying there’s actually a lot?

He approached me and pulled me aside. Listen, he said, the company is having issues with their insurance. They won’t give them more permits because of accidents and other things. I replied, so why don’t you just tell us that? You’re only telling us to look elsewhere or to wait. What are we gonna do? He said, no, I already told you, I’m out of here. He made it clear he didn’t care if we had a job or not, he was going on a vacation. That’s what he told us. Others have been sent to… well, they’re given an address. They give them to Rob… That’s his name, right? Rob?

Alex Martínez:  Yes, his name is Rob.

José Rosas:  Rob is in charge of giving out addresses for other jobs. Call Rob to get assigned to another job. Those guys who got fired, around 50 of them – I’m not making it up – About a month ago? They told them, call such and such to get work. And us five, we were told, you wanna wait one or two months? Go ahead. Practically speaking, as my colleague already said, it was an unjustified dismissal. 

Alex Martínez:  Yes.

José Rosas:  They got away with not telling us. There’s no more work for you in this company. So far we’re still jobless. It’s already been 3 weeks since we lost our jobs, just because we were curious about how Local 79 works here. And we were interested because we’ve heard about the union’s benefits. Us having families, you know, you have to find what’s best for your kids’ well being. So we were curious about it. What’s the deal?. So we met Carlos. Carlos… What’s his name? Carlos what?

Alex Martínez:  Castaño.

Walter Martínez:  Castaño.

José Rosas:  Castaño. He started giving out information about… Just come over. We couldn’t believe it. That’s how we got familiarized with it. So, that’s probably why they were upset, because one time we went outside and there was a protest, same as always: rats were there, also people talking. We went outside, and since we were already there, in the union, they told us, come, join us. People know us as The Diablitos [Little Devils], a group of friends. The Diablitos here, The Diablitos there. And we were like, people took us seriously. And I think that’s the reason why we appeared on the [Local] 79’s website [pages], and why they got upset with us. They probably thought, why are they doing that? Why, if they’re working here?

But we didn’t mean anything bad. We did it innocently, we took pictures, we met Carlos Castaño, he invited us to be in the picture. It was something normal for us. It wasn’t anything against the company, but they took it as such. It’s like our friend Fausto, who also got fired just for talking to the union. You don’t have a job anymore, just for talking to him. And he is another reason why we’re here. Because they really helped him, he won the case and so far he has told us they have helped him out. So far that’s [what has happened].

Maximillian Alvarez:  Incredible. Do you wanna introduce yourself, too…?

Chino Murillo (Translator):  Good morning, my name is Chino Murillo. I’m a Local 79 member, twelve years now. And, I’m basically here as a translator to translate whatever they have trouble understanding or…

Maximillian Alvarez:  I wanna ask you to translate all of that [laughs]. We’ll kind of mix up and we’ll have captions on the video for this, for readers in English. We really appreciate you being here, man. And, thank you to all of you for sitting down and chatting with us today. If you wanna translate that. 

Chino Murillo (Translator):  [laughs]. I’m sorry, say it again?

Maximillian Alvarez:  Just thanking you guys for being here and chatting with me. 

Chino Murillo (Translator):  Ok. He would like to thank you for being here this morning telling your story and your experiences. 

José Rosas:  [inaudible] Sure, no problem. 

Maximillian Alvarez:  You know, as we already started talking about, there’s some real bullshit going on with Alba, and I want to talk to you guys a bit more about that. But I wanted to also, start us off by getting to know a bit more of you guys and how you came to do this work. 

Chino Murillo (Translator):  He wants to know about the bad things the company is doing to you. But before we go there, we’d like to know a bit about yourselves, if you could tell us how you started out in this company and what are your future plans. 

José Rosas:  As I already said, I’m José Rosas. I’ve been with Alba for around six years. At first, there was someone in charge, and that person is nice to you so you follow his orders. This person was a subcontractor, and he invited us to prove our skills in helping him out so he could keep his contract with Alba. This was, like, six years ago since we started. And as I already said, they were sweet-talking us to give our best for the contractor’s benefit, so he could remain in Alba. 

Everything was fine, he started paying us $16, and if we proved we were able, we had the capability to get more work.  I’ll pay you more, I’ll raise your wage. A year went by, everything was smooth. After two years, what’s up? There’s no more, the company doesn’t want to give more. As always, gossip went around, saying the contractor was given more money for us, but he wouldn’t give us any more. Ok, fine. Until we started getting paid $2 more, $18. We were happier, as they say, they’re paying you more, ok. But afterwards, we realized we had more benefits from construction work, and we wanted to claim those. We even let them know we were told we had sick leave days, and they wouldn’t give them to us. 

So, every time we asked, they would get angry at us. You have a job, why would you want sick leave days? We’re just asking, ‘cause we don’t know. We’ve worked in other companies which don’t offer any of that, but we heard about it in this one, having sick leave days. No, ‘cause you don’t have [sick leave days]. Alright. Until we did some further research as years went by, and they told us yes, we did have. They would get angry and send us off to other addresses and jobs. And as I already mentioned, there were good and bad people in charge. There’s guys in charge who only look out for themselves and don’t care about the workers. You do your job and that’s it. And since they don’t care, they really exploit us. Hurry up! We need this and that. We need to fill these three boxes in one day.

Whenever machinery was available, things were easier. If not, buckets would do. Well, ok, it’s work, we’re working, can’t complain about that. But you felt the exploitation, you felt it, you felt the exploitation. Why are you just standing there? Going for a sip of water. You already went 3 times. Not true. You have to work and can’t take a water break unless everybody else does. But not everybody has the same thirst I do. No, everybody must take a break at the same time. And we thought, how so? How so? 

So we went there. As the year went by, we got more familiarized with Alba. As I already said, there are good foremen and bad ones. So now we have a better sense of how Alba works. Because before, when we first got in, we were paid cash. The subcontractor, after two years of getting paid in cash. That was around 2016 and 2017. In 2018 we started getting checks, that’s when we realized we had sick leave days. They explained we would get one hour for every 30 hours of work. And us, we already had. I’m not saying they didn’t pay, they did, but sometimes we had more hours accumulated and we told them, hey, we have such and such amount of hours. How does it work? Help us out. No, if you didn’t claim those hours previously, there’s nothing to do about it. He said, if you never used them, forget it. No, but why? He replied, that’s how it is. Ok, all right. That’s what happened and how we started. At the time, as I already said, Alba, let’s say, has its positive things too. We’re all the same fellow countrymen, same organization, we’re not envious. That’s why we’re not envious about the company. Why? Because that would look bad on the company.

So we started meeting more and more people. We’d get paid with checks and, if you worked overtime, you would get an additional check. We didn’t know that. How? What about us? No, it’s only for those with more years working. But, how? I asked him. By that time, we had already been working for three years. No, but we’ve been working here for three years. No, but I’ve been working for four years and I’m getting paid overtime. One year, ok, understood. Discrimination from…

And there were jobs involving asbestos. I know about it, but not as much as somebody who studied, you could say. They said, look, that’s asbestos. We would go and be warned that asbestos causes cancer, you have to be careful. We were worried about our health and the fact that we were working there, you never know, you may have it on your skin, clothes and everything. Ok, for example, they would tell us, no, it’s nothing, it’s just a piece of cloth, it doesn’t… How? What happened?. Just rinse with water, that’s it, it’s fine. We’re working there, gotta hustle, we’re only trying to help, we’re at work.

We started learning more and more. But as far as they were concerned, they would let us grab it [asbestos] with our hands, even take it with us if we would’ve wanted to, for example. But yes, they would make us work with asbestos, without letting us know their point of view: Hey, don’t touch that, it’s bad for you. When a lot of people started complaining they would tell us, somebody’s coming to make sure there’s no asbestos. It was only after some time, as I already said, that we started speaking our minds. There are a lot of people, work colleagues, that are very shy and think they’ll get fired if they speak their minds. 

We stood up for ourselves. They then developed grudges against us for asking too many questions. They wouldn’t tell us directly, but some friends overheard things: Hey, they’re saying this about you. You and your friends talk back too much. I said, no, we don’t talk back, we’re only looking out for our wellbeing. But they don’t see it like that. They think we’re manipulating the other workers to stop working. And I said, how are we gonna stop working if that’s all we do?

We just stood there until we developed the ability to, after some time, handle big machinery, for example a Bobcat. They give you a license there, they become accountable, like Alba is authorizing it. Then you take their course with an instructor and the whole thing. But again, there will always be a jealous foreman. We took those courses. At first, there were none, sorry. They didn’t have them there, because we know how to operate machinery. Then a foreman approached us. He didn’t want us there. It was here, on 60 Street and Broadway. It was recently, like two years ago. Just for helping, can you imagine? It took me a while to think about it. Should I take it or not?. Took me a while. Right, Walter?

He said, move it, we’re running late. We were carrying metal back then. I got up, he must’ve heard me, and I started it [the machine]. I was about to start operating it, and he signals me from afar: Stop. What happened? What did I do? I turned around. He said, get down, aggressively. Get down, I’ll do it. Thanks. I was startled. I said, ok. Fine, he’s the boss. 

We then found out he didn’t like us, he wanted to bore us. But as I already told you, as time goes by, you learn how to work everything: machinery, [scaffolds], carpentry, everything. He wanted to bore us by giving us difficult jobs. It’s done, it’s ready. I don’t believe you. Yes, check it out. I don’t believe you. But I’ll see it with my own eyes. And he would make us do more and more stuff.  

We later found out about this foreman… How can I say it? He looked after Alba’s pocket. And you just had to comply, you had to. We told him, ok, fine, we’ll work and the whole thing. Just help us out with better pay. Ok, I’ll see what I can do. We were motivated about possibly getting paid better. We started taking down scaffolds, here in… What’s it called?  

Alex Martínez:  [inaudible]

José Rosas:  [inaudible]. We were working there. That was a big job, we were there for a year. At first, it was really nice. As I already said, he treated you well. He changed a lot, he even asked us for a favor: Please, you guys are good workers, that’s why we brought you in. Help me make Alba look good, because a lot of companies have passed by and gotten ditched. Let’s make our best efforts so Alba can stay. That’s why we brought you in. We will help you after. We begged them all year long to help us out. They wouldn’t. They just wanted us to quit our work. 

There were heavy things, he wanted us to pick them up. There was a lot of asbestos there, the asbestos guys were working right beside us. It was tough there. 

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yes, tough and dangerous. 

José Rosas:  And dangerous

Maximillian Alvarez:  Very dangerous.

José Rosas:  Of course there’s now a lot of safety, even if they instruct us not to do certain things, don’t do it like that. And we followed what the safety personnel said. But they would say amongst themselves, if they don’t see you, do it. How so? If they don’t see you, do it. No, but… No. Or I’ll get you. We thought, what do you think? If you fall, who’s to blame? Yourself, you will be responsible, because you did it. They told you not to, but you listened to [the foreman].

We threw [things] down the elevators and engines, both dangerous. He said, just make a little hole over there and throw it. It was 12 stories high. We have a video somewhere, where he was showing us, and they threw it all the way down and sparks would come off, because it reached a very high speed. That was [the foreman’s] idea [but damn], the floor below was gonna break apart. [The client] found out, we were then told, don’t do it, because [the client] found out. [We said] ok. We told you it wouldn’t work. And then, one of the foreman’s favorites arrived. But one could say that he was what we call a toad [snitch], those who go and tell everything we do. They consider us to be very disagreeable, just because we point out things for their safety, like, if you can’t do it, then don’t. Let’s find out another way of doing it.

He wanted to see results. Hurry up. But it’s raining, we said. No, that’s just some droplets, you won’t disintegrate. I told him, but it’s raining pretty hard, and it was all wood. Wood gets very slippery when wet. We were taking out large studs, about thirty-five feet long, heavy, and they still wanted to see results. It would snow. He said, just cover up, and let’s work, we’re behind schedule.

I was there for a while, they already know. I was in charge of the group, supposedly the number one, group A. But it wasn’t official. You’re group number one, they [inaudible] you’re known as the Little Devils. You’re the number one. Yes, but we also want to feel like we’re number one. Yes, of course. It never happened. There’s no point in trying to help them if they don’t want to help you back. And we helped them out for one year. Sometimes they would get angry at me. You’re now a toad. But why, bro? Since you were given the book. Because I was responsible for signing the sheets for each working area. If anything happened, the guy responsible along with the foreman and Franklin would get fired. That’s what they told us. I told him, how can we be accountable if you don’t want to help us? It’s the company that doesn’t wanna help. False, because other foremans would tell us, yes, my workers just got paid more. Why aren’t you getting paid more? I don’t know, they have something against us. And now that they know we’re with the union, their grudge is even worse.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Far worse.

José Rosas:  It’s bad. And like I said, it’s a learning process. I’m telling you, my testimony, you could say one learns that there are really bad people who are only looking after Alba’s pocket. I don’t know why, what’s in it for them? Of course there’s something in it for them, but we’re being exploited and they don’t see that. To them we’re just workers. Obviously, we’re workers, yes, but that doesn’t mean they can exploit us just because we don’t know our rights. That’s the thing. And we show up because we want to work. Sometimes, we’re also to blame. 

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yes. Actually, for the company you’re machines, not humans. 

José Rosas:  Exactly.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Walter, what do you… Why don’t you hop in here and….

Walter Martínez:  Well, honestly, like my colleague said, we’ve always been together, doing all sorts of jobs. And I agree with what he’s said. Another thing I’d like to add is that when we started there, on 261, 28th [ave and] 11th Avenue, we started working there. The foreman would conduct a meeting every Monday. And he didn’t care if you had an accident. He said the company wouldn’t pay you, wouldn’t cover any of it, that you had to be responsible for not getting into accidents. Hey, but I thought, how can that be? Accidents happen sometimes, even if you don’t want them to. Accidents exist, they just appear out of nowhere when you least expect it. 

José Rosas:  Least expected.

Walter Martínez:  Exactly. But, it turns out, he didn’t really think so. His only interest, as my colleague already mentioned, was production and taking care of the boss’s wallet. And also coincidentally, he was only interested in his personal benefit, not in ours. He wanted work to be done as soon as possible, not caring how we carried it out. As my colleague here said, there were times he would say, safety enforcement is not here right now. Do it quick, before he gets here. Dangerous jobs. There were times we refused to do it, we didn’t want to, but he would get angry at us. He was already against us.

Also in another Alba job, I arrived in the morning as usual, like we do, you show up at seven in the morning to work. They gave me and my partner an assignment to cut all power lines. One of the foreman’s employees came and said, everything is shut down, you can start cutting. Are you sure? I asked, are you sure everything’s shut down? Yes, everything’s shut down. Ok.

At that point, I made sure to ask him, because he’s the qualified one. We started doing our job, building the scaffold to get up there, our harnesses, and set up everything. We got up there with our pliers, everything we needed, and started cutting. Half an hour after we started, everything was going fine. But out of nowhere, like I said, accidents can happen. Suddenly, we started cutting a thick wire, the one that fed power to the entire building. Supposedly, all power was cut off, like they said. 

Alex Martínez:  Everything was marked.

Walter Martínez:  Everything was marked. We started cutting, and once the pliers went in, they flew away…

José Rosas:  The pliers.

Walter Martínez:  …The pliers. Both my colleague’s helmet and mine also flew away. 

Maximillian Alvarez:  Whoa!

All Workers:  Whoa!

Walter Martínez:  I was immediately really angry. I got off the scaffolding. Yes, like an earthquake, because you only think about going back, like when you leave your house, you think about going back to your family, your children and wife. 

I got off the scaffolding and went to complain with the foreman at that time. And the only thing he did was tell us we were assholes, like that. I said, this is the first and last time I’ll let you talk to me like this. Honestly, with all due respect, I’ve never disrespected you, but with all due respect, the only asshole here is you. You said the power was shut down. What would’ve happened there if my friend and I had died? If our lives would have ended? What would you have done? You would’ve probably not taken responsibility for it, saying, like you’re saying now, that we didn’t need to cut that wire. You told us that all power was shut down. All.

The electricians were there at that moment, and we had to continue finishing our work after that. So then I asked the electricians, please, can you explain to me which wires need to stay, and which need to be cut? Mark whichever is staying, because, honestly, this guy is supposedly in charge of personnel and look what he just did.

He really is against us some days. There’s no trust. He sends you to do jobs and not even he, as the person in charge, knows what can happen to us. [As a foreman] in charge of a group, [he] needs to check everything before sending personnel, and know what’s going on before sending anybody to do the job. And explain how the job can be carried out. Best way to do it without having an accident. [Just recently], in a job we just got released from, they would also make us carry waste that had asbestos. 

Alex Martínez:  Yes.

Walter Martínez:  Like my colleague already said, one already has knowledge of asbestos. They made us cut some concrete in the basement and I started cutting it with a Dennison [saw], because the concrete was thick. So, I started cutting. But in between the concrete there was asbestos. I then went out and told the…

José Rosas:  Guy in charge.

Walter Martínez:  …The guy in charge, hey, this has asbestos. We don’t even have face masks, we’re not authorized to remove asbestos. As I’ve  told you before, he said, the safety is not here right now. Just do it. I told him, but, how? We can’t remove that. He said, there’s nothing else to do. There’s nothing else for you to do right now. Will you do it or not? Oh, come on! We had to do it then. I took pictures, you could say I took precautions. I grabbed a sample and put it in a bag, which I then sneaked out of that place. I thought, this could serve as evidence, if later on I happen to have asbestos in my blood. 

José Rosas:  You gave it to Carlos, right?

Walter Martínez:  I gave it to Carlos Castaño. I gave it to him because, honestly, you need to look after your own well-being. And at that time, since the supervisor [demanded for us] to do it without proper precautions, without having the… How do you say?

Alex Martínez:  Adequate protection.

Walter Martínez:  Adequate protection, exactly. That’s all.

Maximillian Alvarez:  I’m losing my shit over here. I’m angry.

José Rosas:  And there’s a lot more things.

Alex Martínez:  I will clarify what my colleagues have said, because in the short term I’ve been with the company, I’ve seen everything in these six months. I’m the kind of person that speaks my mind if I’m somewhere and see something that’s wrong. So far here I’ve only been working indoor jobs. It’s only recently that I started with bigger jobs, but I’ve always worked in apartments, houses and such.

And I’ve seen… I repeat: everything they’ve said is true, about the foremans, the supervisors, retaliating against people they don’t like or people who speak up. We went to OSHA, we went to [learn safety], and they told us we weren’t supposed to. And then they said, ok, if you’re gonna be here, tell me, do it, and if not, just leave. It’s that simple, they don’t care. They’re only interested in the bonus they get, because they do get a bonus when things are done quickly. That’s why they’re there, figuring out how to get the job done quickly so they can get it, “busy on something”, as they say. But only for their own benefit, because their employees, their group, don’t get anything, not even a thank you. They always treat them like…

José Rosas:  Look where we’re at.

Alex Martínez:  …Without any respect, as if they were worthless. Like, you show up here, I’m the boss. There are several bosses in the company. The supervisor thinks he’s the boss and the foreman thinks he owns the company. 

And the same thing happens with the ladies. Since they’re females, they get treated… They belittle them, they make them perform tough tasks. Because, sometimes, the company sends employees somewhere and only a few show up, so they send females. That’s where they get exploited. They make them perform very tough tasks, like using hammers, using crowbars, which they are not supposed to do, they’re only there to do cleaning, a broom, doing things like that, soft. But they make them do things and I’m just [bewildered], because I had never done this, and seeing that from the company, I was sort of afraid, you could say, afraid and enraged at the same time, seeing that. But I’ve been watching this, to the point where, months later, I went to this job at…

José Rosas:  261 11th Avenue

Alex Martínez:  261 11th Avenue. Things there were smoother because the job was bigger. But even still, there were a lot of guys telling them, hey, you’re late. Next time, go back home. Only for being late for…

José Rosas:  Five, ten minutes late.

Alex Martínez:  Yes, ten minutes late and they would tell them, if you don’t get here on time, go back home. And they would do this always, threateningly. To me though, since I’m always on time, they never told me this, but I was always close by, I listened to all these conversations. And since a lot of employees in Alba don’t speak English, I would listen to what the supervisors said in English, insulting them and so forth. And since I grew up here, I understand English, and sometimes I pretend I don’t know English on some jobs, just to hear what they say about me. I see a lot of things happening. It’s not fair. This is inhumane for all of us, as employees. 

Maximillian Alvarez:  If I can put you on the spot, because I know you’re here mainly as a translator but you also mentioned you’ve been with Local 79 for… How many years? 14?

Chino Murillo (Translator):  12.

Maximillian Alvarez:  12. I guess I’m wondering if, for people watching, to give a bit of a counterweight to that, like, how this kinda thing shouldn’t happen. 

Chino Murillo (Translator):  Definitely. Yeah, it’s mind blowing.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Oh, grab the mic.

Chino Murillo (Translator):  I’m listening to all the stories you’re telling me and I’m amazed. 

All Workers:  Shocked.

Chino Murillo (Translator):  It’s abuse. It’s complete abuse. It shouldn’t be happening. Just listening to the stories, I feel bad. I feel bad. I can only imagine what they go through. These are regular people like us, who probably have families, who have to work, probably have no other choice, and it’s heartbreaking to see it’s actually happening, this is actually going down and… 

Maximillian Alvarez:  And all around us, like, we’re in a city, we’re in these buildings…

Chino Murillo (Translator):  We’re in the middle of… Construction is all around us. And, it’s unfair, it’s just unfair, coming from a local where we’re so organized and so concerned about one another’s safety. Especially at work, we take care of each other. So, to see what’s going on is heartbreaking, and it just saddens me. I can’t believe you guys had to go through this, seriously. No one should have to go through this kind of abuse. Especially this time where… It’s sad, so, I’m still shocked.

Maximillian Alvarez:  No, same. Honestly, me as well. And I know there’s so much we could talk about but I don’t to keep you guys for too long. So, I was wondering if we could, in this final part, talk a bit more about the firings and the work that Local 79 and you guys have been doing together. Basically, where things have been standing right now, and what folks watching can do to show solidarity with you all. 

Chino Murillo (Translator):  So, for the last bit, he wants to talk more about how you’ve worked with Local 79 and what do you expect in the future? Also, what can people watching this video do? How can they help? How can they take part in this battle? Because this is a battle for the worker, and if we don’t do anything now, we’ll lose the battle. 

José Rosas:  Here there’s also, as we’ve already commented, women who get hired, depending on the location and on the type of job we’re doing. And also, here, at 261’s jobs, at 11th Avenue, a lot of ladies showed up. They came primarily as [flag wavers], that’s why they sent them. And since there wasn’t a lot to [signal], they made them work with us. The guy in charge would say, he introduced us, look, this is such and such and here she’ll join your group, put her to work. And then he would tell me in secret, put her to work. If they wanna work, they gotta work the same as you. I was shocked. How?

And I didn’t say no to the guy in charge. Yes, of course, whatever you say. But we were conscious of the fact that, as I already said, we’re not gonna measure a man’s strength against a woman’s. And we were conscious of the fact that it could be your sister, mom or any other relative. We are conscious enough about helping each other out. I’ll help you, and we did, as far as assigning them tasks, but not the same tasks as men. Work, yes, help us cleaning, sweeping, whatever. But they don’t see it that way. 

Of course, like I said, the foreman has his preferences. Women will arrive, yes, but some will have the foreman’s and other supervisors’ preference. Don’t do anything, like I said, everyone has a preference for certain people, to help them. Can’t find the words right now. Yes, they have preference over other people. 

So, even here, as my friend Walter said, they sent them to do this kind of job, a concrete demolition. And like we told you, you never know what you’ll encounter at work. I wasn’t there at the time, but Walter was. There were three people: Gustavo Correa, Walter, Martín Ortega and the girl who we didn’t know was pregnant, Wendy something, can’t remember her last name. Until they told me. I didn’t know about that, but Walter already told it, and again, they don’t care what’s going on with you, whatever problems you may have: just work and that’s it. 

And like my friend said, just for standing up for someone or saying, hey, that’s asbestos, the supervisor comes and says, like he told that kid, do you wanna work? Work. Here, you’ll do whatever I tell you to do. If not, you can leave. It’s practically a threat. You have no option but to do it. I don’t think it’s fair. Just for standing up for ourselves, or for pointing out that this is something hazardous to your health, they don’t care. You could even get fired just for defending yourself. It’s not right either. Do you understand?

That was a comment on women, and I think that’s it, so far. There’s more things, but they don’t come to mind right now. I’ll say that… For example, the company isn’t bad, it’s what the people in charge do that’s bad, but the company accepts it. The people in charge exploit you, and since they only focus on production, the company doesn’t say anything. 

I worked several years, for example. I made a living, but the bad thing is that the company puts up with all of it. If you’re a supervisor, for example, you have the power to exploit others without consequences. They, as my friend said, give you a certain period of time to complete a job. And we’ve heard from them, from the guys in charge, I don’t care how you do it, just do it. You wanna carry two buckets? Two buckets. Just work, he says. I only want this job to be completed earlier than expected, I want production. They gave me eight months, I want it done in five, six. How? We have to work however we can. But yes, that’s exploitation. Maybe you don’t realize, but they’re pushing you, they’re telling you, and yes, it’s their interest, as the people in charge. The faster you can finish your work, the happier they are, because as far as we know, they get a bonus. Imagine that. 

Chino Murillo (Translator):  And the workers get nothing.

José Rosas:  And to us, the workers, they won’t raise our salary and don’t value our work. You just work. You already have a salary. Of course I have my salary, but I think my work speaks for itself. I can prove that I know how to do it. You can’t just let anybody operate the machinery, like a [Dennison saw], you could say. We have a friend’s experience, who didn’t handle it correctly, it recoiled, and cut his face. 

Maximillian Alvarez:  Really?

José Rosas:  Really. Here at Alba. I told him to ask for help or something, but they told him it was pointless to ask for help, because he would only get the doctor’s fee. It was a six inch cut.  

Even here, in 261, there was a girl who also had an accident. And we saw that girl, because she was in our group, we helped her. We called the supervisor and he came. He… I don’t know what kind of arrangement they have with Alba, to hide from the safety guy what’s going on, like those accidents. They want to do it in the dark, in secret. So, are you ok? I asked the girl, but she was unconscious. We didn’t know what had happened to her, we just helped her. And then he arrived. He didn’t want to call anyone, only take her to the infirmary. We saw that she wasn’t ok, she passed out. So then the safety arrived, from New Line, he checked her, he did help. 

We expected our supervisor to help his people, and he just stood there. He pretty much didn’t do anything. As opposed to the safety from New Line, he called the ambulance. He went with her to get her evaluated.  

Carlos here, Carlos Castaño, even says that he learned from the supervisor that those were consequences of [inaudible]. He wrote a report in their favor so the problem wouldn’t get out of control. But then the girl told us what happened, she was working and, I think, well it’s only a testimony… Just keep in mind that it’s not resolved yet. So then, as far as I know, something fell on the girl’s back, she doesn’t know if it was metal or… She is a [inaudible], she doesn’t know if it was a piece of metal or a rock, in the… How do you say when you get a report at the hospital?

Chino Murillo (Translator):  A medical report.

José Rosas:  A medical report specifying what it was. So far, we don’t know. 

Chino Murillo (Translator):  She doesn’t know what struck her.

José Rosas:  But she has a scar and the whole thing. Right there at the hospital they made a report and everything

Alex Martínez:  Around where her lungs are.

José Rosas:  Around her lungs.

Alex Martínez:  Around this part over here. 

José Rosas:  And, since we’re doing this, we told Carlos that, since you’re helping us, we’d like to know if you could also help her, for example, in that situation. Because they want in case of an accident, they want us to avoid telling the hospital. Supposedly they have their own medical center which is cheaper. They don’t want to send us because hospitals are expensive and depend on whatever. Supposedly they have their own medical center for workers. 

Speaking of health, he came one day with a sheet. Look, this is a sheet you have to sign. And it said that we authorized, I, José Rosas, authorize, and give them consent to help us take us somewhere adequate in case of an accident. Only options were yes and no, and they threatened us saying, you have to sign. If you don’t sign, there’s no more work for you. And we, at the group, thought, how?. As I already said, as the one in charge, I went over and told him, hey, listen, the guys said they will not sign. Here’s everything, all the sheets. We wrote, no. But, how? You don’t want any help?. Of course we want help. We have that benefit, to get your help in case there’s any type of accident. But you won’t let us help you. Why would you write no? He was still angry. 

I said, ok, let me tell you something, because here it only says that we’re giving consent so you can help us. If you could explain how that works, how will you help us, ok, not you, but the company, we’re conscious, we’ll mark down yes. But organize a meeting and explain what this help you’re offering comprises. All right, if you don’t wanna sign, it’s fine. Angry. A supervisor, like I said. Some time after, this sheet I’m telling you about…

Some time after, I don’t know, I don’t have the exact date, a guy got injured while pushing a mini. And he, I don’t know, didn’t calculate the distance, and his foot got under it, and the mini pushed it and twisted his foot. They checked him up, but only the nurse at New Line. What happened? The supervisor was so nice that he even took off his boot, gave him water and a pill. Really nice, and he’s never like that. Hypocrisy, right?

So I was following the whole thing, I was there to keep track of what he was going to do, what they were going to say. And he was talking to the people in charge, the safeties. And there was a report from New Line and the whole thing. He said, come, the kid’s ready to be taken to the hospital. I’m aware that they’ll take him to the hospital, the ambulance will come or something like that, I don’t know. The boy couldn’t walk. He told me, help me get him out. Get him out, you’re saying? Yes, they’ll get him out through this side. Ok. All of a sudden a car from Alba arrived, an Alba Uber, from the company. Get him in, he said. I told him, how? You’re taking him here? Yes, they’re taking him to the hospital. Ok, if you’re taking him to the hospital, it’s fine. Let’s go. They took him to their medical center. 

They’re not interested in providing the service, they’re only interested in their own personal needs. Or also, I believe, if it were something worse, the doctors would say everything’s fine, do you understand? And that’s –

Walter Martínez:  So that nobody retaliates against the…

José Rosas:  Company.

Walter Martínez:  …Company.

José Rosas:  So that. That’s another thing about them, they want to keep all kinds of accidents on the low. Can you imagine? How are they gonna hide this accident they just had, with this guy that ended in a coma? How will they keep it a secret? They can’t, just imagine. And that’s their custom about hiding all those types of accidents. As long as it’s nothing too serious, they want to keep it low. And yes, I think that’s all I got for now. That’s it. 

Walter Martínez:  A piece of advice for all construction workers, please, if an accident happens to a friend or work colleague, you should automatically grab the phone and call emergency services to send paramedics so they can help the best way possible. And if they see any wrongdoing, they should also…

José Rosas:  Not stay quiet.

Walter Martínez:  Don’t stay quiet, file a report, because that’s the best way to help one another, not staying quiet. That’s how we’ll be able to prosper, helping one another. It’s the best way.

Alex Martínez:  I think the same way. We’re all in these jobs, but we don’t know if we’ll make it back home the way we left. Because accidents always happen at work, and the fact that there’s somebody putting pressure, saying things like, hey, look, do this, and discriminate against them, they shouldn’t be afraid. And if they don’t know much about the country’s laws, they should find a way. Just because they can’t speak English and don’t know…

José Rosas:  Know their rights.

Alex Martínez:  Exactly. Just because they don’t know their rights doesn’t mean they should be mistreated in the company. And remember that the company is just a company by name, but the engine will always be the workforce, which is the worker, and is strong. That’s the message. 

Maximillian Alvarez:  And just to tie things up, how have y’all been working with the union, and what can folks watching do to support you and your co-workers who’ve gone through this every day?

Alex Martínez:  Since that time I spoke to Carlos, Carlos has always been an honest person, a very good person, really. I have no complaints. He looks after our wellbeing as Latino employees. So he’s always giving us guidance as to what we are qualified to do, laws and everything. And I think he’s doing a great job by doing what he’s doing. Also, all the other members who support us and look after our best interests, that means a lot to me and to all of us, because you realize they really want something and that makes us feel good, we’re very grateful, yes, truthfully. 

Walter Martínez:  We’re honestly very grateful with the [Local] 79, with all the organizers, because honestly they’re treating us the best way possible. Like, for example, lecturing us about our rights as construction workers so we don’t fall prey to exploitation. Here at the union, honestly, as they tell us, there’s a lot of benefits. Benefits which, honestly, all workers should have.

And as I already said, the company we were at, Alba Demolition, we didn’t have any benefits. No worker has any benefits, be it medical or days off, or sick leave days, none of that. And it’s a matter of raising our voices. The rest of the workers need to hear what’s going on with this company and not stay quiet about it. 

José Rosas:  As we’re already saying here, we’re very grateful for having this knowledge. Because before, who was going to break down for you what a union is? And the union, since we met Carlos… We met Carlos first, then Mike here, we were introduced, and started inquiring more about the union. We found out more, or heard, but weren’t sure what it was about. So, up until now, I’m very grateful, here, in the company of friends, for opening our eyes in regards to the benefits we have. After many years at Alba, they never gave us benefits, they wouldn’t tell us anything. 

And I’m happy we’re now part of the union. We hope everything keeps moving forward and we want to continue supporting the same way they have done with us. And yes, as my colleagues here said, we shouldn’t stay quiet about our feelings, or thoughts, opinions. Be aware that, I think the union, as people put it, is a benefit for me. For me and for my family. And I think that, God willing, a lot more doors will open for other things. And we should keep on going and supporting [Local] 79. I’ll say it again, I’m thankful for all the knowledge we’ve learned so far and I feel we’re ok. As you said, it’s a union, and the union is all of us. 

All Workers:  Mm-hmm (affirmative).

José Rosas:  And to stand up for ourselves, to say what really benefits us and what benefits we have. And yes, thanks for this conversation you’ve invited us, and something from our testimonies might be useful to you. We hope everything turns out very well. 

Chino Murillo (Translator):  I’ll say something. So, on behalf of Local 79, I personally would like to thank you guys for having the courage and speaking up, and taking these first steps because that’s the way to start, you know? Hopefully other people will see this and come out and follow your footsteps, because it’s the only way we’re gonna win the battle. If not, these [companies] are gonna keep taking advantage of the workers. And on behalf of us, I admire the courage of you guys for doing this, I really do. And at Local 79, we got your back. We’re here to help you. You’re not alone, and we’re gonna get through this. We’re gonna win this fight. 

Maximillian Alvarez:  You’re not alone. That’s ultimately what a union should mean, right? We’re not alone at work, it’s like that. I can’t thank you guys enough for chatting with me today, for speaking your truth, for speaking out. I really appreciate it. Thank you for helping with the translation, and for all that Local 79 is doing. So, please stay safe, and thank you for talking to me. Solidarity always. 

All Workers:  Thank you.

Maximillian Alvarez:  For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez for The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work so that we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.

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.
 
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