Saturday, July 19, 2008

Employer rights and worker deaths in construction

By Herman Benson

Towering cranes are shooting up all over New York City where building construction is booming and some construction workers are dying. A few fall off scaffolds, I-beams, and window ledges; one is buried and suffocated in an illegally dug collapsing trench.

After two huge cranes fell in mid-town Manhattan --- one within days of the other --- killing workers and bystanders and crushing nearby apartments, city officials and contractor VIPs say something must be done about it. But what?

We need more and more inspectors, some say; and they must inspect more often and more honestly. After hurried investigations, a few unlucky inspectors take the rap; they lose their jobs for having, on occasion, reported falsely or taken bribes, although few of the offenses had any direct causal connection with the accidents.

More inspection by honest inspectors? It's bound to do some good, but not much, because there's a limit to what any inspectors can accomplish, even the best, by appearing, with or without warning, on the site where all that complicated equipment, with thousands of parts, is assembled. They can't go over every one of those straps, ropes, and cables; those wheels, pulleys, and gears; those nuts and bolts that hold everything together. Were the right-size rods inserted, hammered into place, and properly fixed to hold the connected units together? Were all the scaffolds securely fixed to the walls? Was someone satisfied with dangerous cost-cutting shortcuts?

Those few dozens inspectors, even if honest can see only so much. But there are others, not dozens but thousands, who can do more: the construction workers actually at the work sites on the job, those who put everything together and actually use all that equipment. Their lives are at risk when safety precautions are ignored. When there's death in an accident, occasionally a bystander is victimized; always it's at least one construction worker, often more. But no one in a position of authority encourages them to watch over the work and speak up when they know working conditions are dangerous. (When we suspect a danger from terrorists, all citizens are urged to report what they see.) No one calls on those workers who have most at stake --- their lives --- to blow the whistle on the lethal dangers in construction.

Employers want only employees who will work swiftly and keep their mouths shut. Without protection, non-union workers --- especially the undocumented --- will continue to be helpless until they are organized. But unionized workers should feel free to speak out; their unions should protect their right to work in safety. But they have a problem.

Construction workers, even unionized construction workers, have no real job security. Jobs are transient, not permanent; when one project is finished, they look for another, often with a different contractor. The problem is that virtually all union contracts give employers right to reject any applicant for work, even those dispatched from the union hiring hall. This contractual right to reject is unqualified; the employer need give no explanation; the rejected worker has no recourse to any grievance procedure.

As a consequence, unionists who insist that contractors comply with the terms of their union agreement, or who file grievances soon find that they are blacklisted wherever they apply for work. If you win a grievance against one employer, you may find it impossible to get work from any employer. Under these conditions, construction workers who protest unsafe conditions, risk everything. Many are forced to become "travelers," roaming the country for work where their reputation as good union members is still unknown.

The most loyal union members can be victimized by the employers' arbitrary right to reject. In the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, local officers and union activists have been trying for years to get rid of that onerous provision in their contracts. At the IBEW convention in 2001, over the opposition of their international officers, the delegates directed the IBEW leaders to end the unilateral right to reject and replace it with a provision that required "good cause" for any rejection, Nothing happened. In 2006, the convention delegates repeated their demand for the change. Again, nothing happened. And so, in the IBEW as in most of construction, a union whistleblower has no contractual protection. Until that changes, nothing dramatic is likely to change in making construction work safer.

[AUD has collected some action proposals from IBEW members regarding the "right to reject" -- MN]

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