(JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY) More than 1,000 construction workers—members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA)–rallied outside of Newport Town Square Park in Jersey City this afternoon calling for an end to worker exploitation and abuse on Jersey City construction projects.
Originally planned for inside Newport Town Square Park, multi-billion-dollar developer LeFrak closed down the park for public use this morning, claiming ownership. The Union saw the developer’s action as disappointing but emblematic of the issue.
LIUNA Vice President and Regional Manager Mike Hellstrom commented on Lefrak’s decision to close the park, “rich developers feel like they can do what they want—to the employees building their high-rises and to local residents seeking to peacefully assemble. The sense of entitlement and unwillingness to do what it right is exactly why we are here.” Developers like LeFrak consider this City their fiefdom and that they can do whatever they want, but the help is revolting. We aren’t going away. In fact, we will grow.”
Hellstrom pointed out a troubling shift in real estate development and construction in Jersey City. In past decades, generations of union workers–local residents–built Jersey City’s buildings and infrastructure. In the last decade as construction boomed and new buildings filled the skyline, however, developers chose to accept tax breaks and other government aid but left the local workforce behind for unscrupulous business practices that lower standards and cheat workers.
“Jersey City used to be a place where workers were valued and a hard day’s labor was rewarded,” said Hellstrom, “but today we can see a development community that has decoupled from quality, union careers in favor of exploiting workers for profit.”
Jersey City is now the 10th “tallest” city in the United States and projections are for more than a dozen additional high-rises with a value exceeding $5 billion starting in the next few years. For all its growth in housing inventory, however, Jersey City is becoming unaffordable to most workers. Despite tremendous racial and ethnic diversity, for example, Jersey City is rated as “highly segregated” according to the Othering and Belonging Institute at The University of California – Berkeley.
LIUNA General President Brent Booker addressed the assembled crowd and urged them not back down from the challenges ahead and that his 550,000-member union supports them. “I am proud to stand with my LIUNA brothers and sisters in Jersey City and join them in demanding what any person who works hard for a living deserves – the right to a union and good-family supporting wages and benefits.”
On hand at the Laborers Fight Back Rally was a former worker at The Wave development project, Moises Nunez Colindres, who described the day he was critically injured on the 30th floor of the unfinished LeFrak-owned building. Supervisors at Concrete Rising, a contractor hired for the LeFrak project, pushed him and his co-workers to work harder and faster in very dangerous conditions and showed literally no concern after he got hurt. Speaking to the crowd in his native Spanish, Nunez Colindres described the actions taken by his employer after his injury.
“They lowered me off the building by a crane in a garbage bin. No one called an ambulance for me. They treated me like I did not matter,” he said.
Rev. Carl E. Styles, business manager of the New Jersey Building Laborers District Council, said that stories like that of Moises Nunez Colindres are not one-offs, but rather part of a prevailing trend in construction that utilizes vulnerable workers, most notably, immigrants and the formerly incarcerated, to perform work knowing that they have little recourse to address or remedy unfair or unsafe treatment.
“Employers know how to find and hire vulnerable workers. They don’t have to look much further than day-laborer corners and parole offices, or subcontracting exploitation through a labor broker,” explained Styles. “And while wage theft, retaliation, and worker endangerment may be commonplace right now, it doesn’t have to stay that way. If Jersey City wants to raise the skyline the right way, they better raise standards and aggressively enforce the laws that protect workers.”
LIUNA Local 3 Business Manager Paul Roldan-Eng echoed the need for enforcement and highlighted the role local unions like LIUNA play. “We not only represent workers, we represent the fair workplace standards that benefit all workers—union and non-union alike,” he said. “Jersey City has a choice: to look at worker exploitation as a civic problem that hurts working families, law-abiding employers, and entire communities or Jersey City can look at worker exploitation as an opportunity to reward those willing and able to cheat. The choice seems abundantly clear. Now, Jersey City must take action and do something about it.”
Recognizing the systematic problems in construction, LIUNA has implemented the Laborers Fight Back campaign to root out corruption and worker exploitation on construction projects in New Jersey. The union is employing dozens of experienced worker organizers who monitor projects of all size, meet with workers, and forward any evidence of illegal actions to the appropriate authorities. LIUNA advocates for the rights of all workers.