Laborers Doing the Heavy Lifting for Unions


July 8, 1998 New York Times

NEW YORK -- It's not very surprising, in retrospect, that it was the hod carriers, the floor sweepers, the stackers of bricks and scaffolding who were at the heart of last week's unruly labor rally in midtown Manhattan.

There were plenty of skilled tradesmen blocking streets and stirring up the air to protest the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's use of a nonunion contractor, as any bruised police officer can attest, but the organizers, the ones who shoved and shouted the hardest, were laborers.

They are the ones most vulnerable to swings in the economy and the encroachment of nonunion contractors, the first to be laid off a job when a budget gets cut.

Mike Hellstrom, stocky and loud and typical of a new defiance among young labor leaders, said it was no coincidence that his union was at the vortex of the rally, just as it has been trying for two years to energize the other building trades.

"A carpenter needs to be able to use a screw gun and read plans and make cuts with sheet rock knives," said Hellstrom, assistant organizing director of Local 79 of the Construction and Building Laborers Union and one of a handful of people who brought together 40,000 workers for the protest. "But anybody can be a laborer. Anybody. Anybody can stack brick and shovel mortar and sand and sweep brooms and run pumps and hump stuff around on a job site. So we're not going to be complacent like some of the others."

Hellstrom and his colleagues have brought what they call a "warrior mentality" to the 7,500 members of Local 79, making it one of the most visible unions in New York over the last two years.

Having grown sick of the corruption that long plagued the union, and wary of deals with politicians, the new leaders have created a new arena on the streets outside nonunion job sites, holding mass lunchtime rallies where thousands of members blow pink plastic whistles and deliberately make annoyances of themselves.

Most prominently, the local borrowed an idea from some Chicago unions and bought a pair of 15-foot rat balloons for about $4,000 each. Hellstrom carries them around in the back of his pickup truck and happily inflates them at a moment's notice when a contractor uses nonunion labor on a building site. The rats attract cameras, the whistles attract passers-by, and the general effect brings a good deal of attention to contractors who often prefer to operate quietly.

"The idea is to create a commotion," said Hellstrom, 32, grinning at the thought of all the editorials that decried the lawlessness of the midtown rally. "The thing about in-your-face-type organizing and militancy is, you're definitely going to get your point across faster and you're going to be heard faster. Our issues have been ignored for a long time, so if shutting down the city streets got us the attention that we got over this cause, then so be it."

To some degree, it has worked. The union's organizing has brought 1,500 previously nonunionized demolition workers into the local, and the constant rallies persuaded a contractor at 80 John Street to sign with the union. The state Labor Department has begun investigating the practices of Roy Kay Inc., the nonunion contractor that was the target of the midtown rally, based on information provided by union officials.

The other building trades, which hung back from the Laborers' more aggressive tactics for years, are starting to join in.

Edward Malloy, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 100,000 construction workers, said that Local 79 had done a "tremendous job" re energizing the trades, and that Hellstrom was one of a new breed of aggressive young organizers turning up the heat.

Fred Kotler, who has taught Hellstrom in union organizing classes at the Construction Industry Program of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Manhattan, said Hellstrom was one of the most instinctive organizers he had known.

"He's tough and street smart, and he represents a new generation of people who are now in positions of union responsibility, infusing a lot of energy into the building trades," said Kotler, associate director of the program.

Hellstrom, the grandson of Swedish immigrants, dropped out of high school in the 11th grade to join the union, having been taken to the union hall by his father -- a laborer even now -- at age 16.

Like a lot of laborers, he became "addicted to the good money," as he put it, and never left, though he eventually got his equivalency diploma. He worked on scores of construction sites over the years, eventually

becoming a labor foreman, and after the federal government cleaned up and reorganized the local in 1996, he moved into organizing.

He's not sure where the militant streak came from, although he suspects he picked it up reading about the early days of the labor movement in America and the writings of the organizer Saul Alinsky.

By now, he said, even his 3-year-old daughter, Stephanie, sings union chants around the two-bedroom apartment he and his wife, Angela, rent in Howard Beach, Queens, a few blocks from where he grew up. He just hopes his daughter doesn't grow up to be quite as rebellious as her dad.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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