New York Daily News

Union Smells Rat In Pay Flap With Company

By Tom Robbins
March 13, 2000

The renovation of a massive post office building in lower Manhattan has launched a test of wills between an asbestos contractor and the union representing asbestos removal workers.

Asbestos Workers Local 78, a division of the Laborers union, has picketed and deployed the building trades' most popular weapons, 10-foot-tall rubber rats, to protest the practices of AIA Environmental Corp.

The union accuses the firm of routinely paying its workers late and failing to pay Social Security, workers' compensation and unemployment taxes.

Workers also complain that they're forced to work as independent contractors, getting no vacation time or sick days.

"First, they don't pay their workers for weeks at a time, then they hire them as independent contractors, leaving them completely unprotected," said Local 78 President Sal Speziale.

Union officials say it's the modus operandi of AIA owner Emil Braun.

Braun co-owned Asbestos Industries of America, a defunct firm that operated from the same address in Astoria, Queens. It was barred from doing state work by the New York State Department of Labor in 1999 for failing to pay prevailing wages.

In an interview with Working Papers, Braun admitted being four weeks behind in paying his workers. "We have so many jobs going on," he said.

Braun also acknowledged that until recently, he had treated his workers as subcontractors.

"They get their own training and have their own tools," said Braun. "It seemed to make sense, especially when Mrs. Clinton was looking to give every employee health insurance through their employer. Somebody could work for me for three days. It is the nature of the industry."

The union has taken its complaints to the U.S. Postal Service and Boston Properties, a real estate firm headed by Daily News Chairman Mortimer Zuckerman, which holds a lease on the building at 90 Church St. and is serving as construction adviser as the property is converted to office space.

A spokeswoman for the Postal Service said the agency is mandated to ensure that contractors pay the federal prevailing wage.

"Beyond that, we don't get involved. We are looking at the cost factor, their ability to deliver within the time frame we are looking at," said the spokeswoman, Diane Todd.

"Apparently, [the Laborers] are unhappy with a contract led by the U.S. Postal Service. Their efforts aimed at Boston Properties are misguided and inappropriate," said Boston Properties Senior Vice President Robert Selsam.

Workers for the firm said they have little say about their status.

Richard, 26, who is from Ecuador, said he worked 2 1/2 years for AIA without vacations or sick days and with no deductions taken from his paycheck. He said he and other non-English speaking workers sign a lengthy document - in English - in which they declared themselves independent subcontractors. "They told us if we didn't sign, we would be fired," Richard said through a translator provided by the union.

Braun denied that anyone was threatened. He also defended treating his workers as subcontractors, although he said he now makes payroll deductions

Braun accused the union of waging a pressure campaign against him after he rebuffed their request that he sign a contract. "I met with the union people; it was out of central casting, a lot of 'dese' and 'dose' and things of that nature," said Braun.

Two years ago, he said, the union upped the ante. "They started picketing my job site with this Mickey Mouse," referring to the 10-foot-tall inflated rodents. Braun said the campaign against him already had cost him several customers.

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