New York Times


No Mickey Mouse Union Protest at the Ice House


September 14, 1997, Sunday

Some 50 union members began arriving in TriBeCa at 6:30 last Monday morning, a 20-foot inflated plastic rat by their side. They chanted and whistled, awakening neighborhood residents with the din. The reason? To make the point, said the protest organizer, Mike Hellstrom, that "nonunion contractors are rats."

The object of protesters' wrath was the Ice House, a loft conversion at 27 North Moore Street, between Varick and Hudson Streets, a block whose residents include John F. Kennedy Jr. and the actor Harvey Keitel. Mr. Hellstrom, a representative of Local 79 of the Construction and Building Laborers union, said he had chosen the building, where apartments sell for $600,000 to more than $1 million, because the contractor, Sam Strulovitch, has employed nonunion labor to do some interior demolition.

"The building and construction trades were instrumental in getting tax incentives for builders downtown," Mr. Hellstrom said, referring to the Downtown Revitalization Plan signed into law in 1995. "But now we're being locked out of a lot of the work being done." While the legislation covers only Manhattan south of Chambers Street, the use of nonunion workers occurs throughout the city, he said, an assertion echoed by Louis Coletti, chairman of the Building Trades Employers' Association, a group of 600 union contractors.

Mr. Coletti estimated that his members' share of city construction work has dwindled to no more than 50 percent from 60 or 70 percent in the 1980's. He blamed lower bids by nonunion concerns that "generally don't pay decent wages." He also said nonunion contractors take safety shortcuts.

Conceding that some subcontractors on the Ice House use nonunion workers, the Strulovitch company's vice president, Bill Van Salisbury, said he thought workers were adequately paid. He said that most were union members, including all the carpenters and electricians, and that no violations had been cited during recent visits by fire, buildings and sanitation inspectors.

Mr. Hellstrom insisted he would not end the protests or take down the rat until the entire Ice House project has been unionized. He pointed to a demonstration this spring in the Financial District, where nonunion workers were helping to convert a 24-story office building at 80 John Street to rental apartments. "We stayed there for 25 weeks," he said. "Finally, the developer agreed to use union labor on his next five projects." BERNARD STAMLER

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