By Charles R. Morris
July 9, 1998, Thursday
Punching a police horse in the nose doesn't
win you many friends, and the recent mobbing of midtown by angry
construction workers is enough to make New Yorkers sympathize
with taxi strikes. The taxi drivers, after all, scrape out a living
by working incredibly long hours in a nerve-jangling, high-risk
occupation. The brawny, well-paid suburbanites who left 18 injured
police officers in their wake just don't tweak our innate sense
But beyond the boorishness, there is sadness.
The demonstration wasn't about wages, or working conditions, or
job site safety. Instead it was a simple outburst of frustration
over the degree to which even New York is no longer a union town.
The precipitating issue was the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority's hiring of a nonunion contractor for
a major renovation job. Public agencies have always been allowed
to hire nonunion workers so long as they pay prevailing wages.
Until recently, however, it would have been inconceivable to see
nonunion workers on big public projects. Numbers are elusive,
but even the unions concede that most construction work in New
York, especially if rehabilitations are included, is now nonunion.
American unionism was one of the great social
movements that shaped our history, a transcendent cause that people
got beaten up or died for, much like the civil rights movement.
The collective memory of unionists thrills to dramas of torchlit
parades, inspiring folk singers, legendary orators. The enemies
were exploitative employers, dangerous working conditions, sweatshop
wages. The movement was about simple moral imperatives, just like
The heyday of construction organizing was
about a century ago. Irishmen predominated in the trades, and
their unions reflected an ethnic clannishness. Union memberships
were passed down like family heirlooms, from father to son, from
uncle to cousin. In construction trades, the union hiring hall
is the real employer, not the contractor. Builders come and go;
the union is the constant.
The union movement was already on the downswing
in the late 1960's, when guild-style trade-union exclusionism
ran smack into the civil rights demand for integrated work forces.
Union resistance was partly just sheer, ugly racism, but partly
it was also about losing control over a small, stable part of
the universe. Now almost half of all new apprentices are from
minority groups. That is both a tribute to the quiet efforts of
labor statesmen like the late Peter Brennan and a reflection of
generational discontinuities. The sons of plumbers prefer college.
Now, as often as not, unions are thought
of as obstructionists, grit in the economic machinery, just one
more reason that everything costs so much in New York. And it's
true; unions are expensive. Nationwide, construction workers get
half again as much as factory workers, and New York construction
wages are a third higher yet.
But it's hard to begrudge that an operating
engineer can make $100,000 in a good year, when Goldman, Sachs
partners may pocket a billion from their company's public stock
offering. Operating engineers run the big rigs, the shovels, cranes
and bulldozers that delight all of us sidewalk gawkers. What Goldman,
Sachs partner can do anything as useful?
More corrosive are the work rules: overtime
for any hours outside 8 A.M. and 4 P.M., and the manning rules
-- minimum numbers of paid standbys; nonworking, but paid, shop
stewards; minimum two-man teams on light jobs; deputy foremen,
much else. For years contractors have tried to void a rule requiring
pay for mandatory teamsters, whether they show up or not, but
that rule stands. The theatrical unions milked the movie industry
the same way and chased it from the city. None of this is caused
by global competition.
Only the highly skilled trades are heavily
unionized now, despite some recent organizing successes among
the laborers. Skyscraper buildings need hundreds of ironworkers,
operating engineers, industrial-scale plumbers and electricians.
Those are the kinds of numbers and skills that can be found only
in a hiring hall. But union cards are rarely seen on run-of-the-mill
work sites, like middle-income apartment developments. Contractors
bring their own workers, not so much for pay savings as for work-rule
We're living in an age of the 401(k) and nomadic "knowledge workers," when all the great social movements have ossified -- the New Deal is fossilized in bureaucracy, the civil rights movement fights over quotas, feminism has become political correctness, unionism institutionalized grabbiness. The outpouring of tens of thousands of workers in the union demonstration last week was a brief flicker from a time when big issues could still stir the soul.