As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through New York City, day laborers in construction are among those who bear the brunt of the impacts.
It took time for non-essential construction to be halted, and now that it has, construction on many sites continues – continuing to expose workers to the virus while the city is urging people stay at home.
A day after the order to stop work on non-essential sites took effect, for example, the buildings department received more than 900 appeals from developers and contractors, arguing their projects should count as essential.
Migrant construction workers often lack the safety protections, sick-pay, and union protections that help hold contractors accountable.
In this context, worker centers like the Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn play a crucial role. The Rights Here Project interviewed Ligia Guallpa, Executive Director of WJP, for Urban Omnibus. Read the full interview here.
As Ligia says: “We have built a strong community that understands the power of organizing and solidarity in times like this. Far too often, low-wage immigrant workers, who do not have access to available safety net programs, are left out of disaster responses while bearing the brunt of the difficult and dangerous work that comes in the wake of these disasters.”
Ligia has a clear vision for the future:
“My hope is that we can build a stronger workers’ movement: that there is a pathway for unionizing immigrant workers; that we build a new economy where there are opportunities for communities of color; that the construction industry becomes an industry of opportunity for women and communities of color; and that these jobs that are safer and more dignified for everybody.”
Earlier this year, the Rights Here Project spoke with construction worker Rafael. “We day laborers,” he said, “we are prime targets for cheats. There have been times when we are driven for miles, get threatened with arms, work hard through the day in demolition or asbestos removal, and then don’t get paid.”
According to the US Department of Labor, up to $1 billion is stolen from workers every year: either in unpaid wages, or when workers don’t receive the minimum wage, overtime wages, or payment for all the hours they have worked.
That’s why workers from construction and other industries like restaurants and nail salons rallied yesterday outside Governor Cuomo’s office in NYC calling on him to pass the SWEAT bill in to law.
The bill gives workers and the Department of Labor the tools to recover stolen wages, by putting a lien on the employers’ business or property until the conclusion of a court case or investigation. The bill passed the NY legislature and now awaits Cuomo’s signature. Even when workers do take action and win settlements for unpaid wages, employers often close up shop and register under a different name, or hide their assets. The SWEAT bill aims to stop them getting away with this.
At the rally, Adriana Escandón of the Workers Justice Project said: “El robo del salario es un crimen. Pero mas allá de un crimen es un atentado contra la humanidad de los trabajadores y las trabajadores”. “Wage theft is a crime. And more than that, it is an affront to workers’ humanity.”
Judaline was the first female plumber in Plumbers Local Union 371 in Staten Island. She recently had a major breakthrough when Plumbers Local 1 officially recognized the “Croton Sisters” women’s committee.
In 2017, Judaline set up the nonprofit Tools & Tiaras Inc, which introduces girls to construction tools. Tools & Tiaras runs workshops during the school year, and summer camps in New York and New Jersey. As Judaline’s words make clear, teaching girls how to use tools is about far more than construction. It’s about power.
“I didn’t want any little girl to grow up like I did,” says Judaline. “I didn’t have confidence in myself. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the world. And I knew how construction changed all of that for me. I went from being a poor girl, growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, to having a union salary that enables me to have a house, to start Tools & Tiaras. You always have a job as a tradesperson. That is powerful. That’s why more women need to know about it. The freedom.
“When you realize that you can do something that most women and a lot of men can’t do, it gives you this bravado. You even walk differently. Because the minute you start working with tools, the mind shift happens: ‘I can do this. I can do anything.'”
Read the full interview here: “Power Tools“, Urban Omnibus.
New York City faces rising sea levels, increasing inequality and growth, and broken infrastructure. In that context, said Council Member Brad Lander at a recent CityLimits discussion, the city needs a comprehensive approach to planning. It makes little sense to continue with the current piece-meal process.
“The main reason we are going to continue doing it the way
we have been doing it, is there’s a significant status quo bias,” he added.
This year a Charter Revision is underway. A commission is developing a set of revisions to the City Charter that will go before voters in November. Tomorrow evening, the Commission is holding a public meeting where they will vote on which proposals advance to the final recommendations.
One area under review is land use. The Thriving Communities Coalition has used this opportunity to call for a city-wide, comprehensive approach to planning that puts equity at the center. The coalition’s principles include a “fair distribution of resources and development”, “transparency and accountability”, and “real community power and ownership.”
Elena Conte of the Pratt Center, one of the coalition members, explained on the WBAI Max & Murphy Show what’s wrong with the current system.
“Right now we’re both failing to meet the needs of existing residents and we’re failing to plan holistically for the growth that is anticipated, the climate change that is already happening. It’s as though the right-hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing when it comes to planning and policy. And the folks who are bearing the biggest brunt of that are communities of color because of the long legacy of unmet needs and racist planning decisions that have left them with baseline conditions that are so inappropriate for a baseline standard of living.”
At a Charter Revision hearing back in March, members of the coalition and Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who also backs its goals, were the last to testify. They followed a series of testimonies that argued for things to stay as they are. “A lot of the case being made [so far] is so uninspired,” said Reynoso. “Yet we as a city are anything but that.”
“There has to be a better way…This is not how we should be planning in our city. It shouldn’t happen one step at a time, one council member at a time, we should have a thoughtful process, and truly believe that we can plan as a city.”
They refer to the 12 separate kinds of existing plans – like the City Strategic Policy Statement, Ten-Year Capital Strategy, and Citywide Statement of Needs – which currently operate in a disconnected way, and could potentially be connected into a comprehensive plan for the city.
The question remains whether the Commission will put deep reforms that really address inequity in the planning process to the public in November.
Look at the NYC Department of Building’s map of active major construction, and there are large blue dots along the Southern Brooklyn waterfront. Dig further into the data, and it shows that over 70 major construction projects are underway within Brooklyn’s Community Board 13, which includes Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Gravesend and SeaGate.
The area was hard-hit by superstorm Sandy in 2012. Some Sandy re-construction of public housing projects is still not finished.
But developers are drawn to the water-side views, and to the benefits of a Bloomberg-era re-zoning, whose results were delayed first by the recession then the storm. Developments are going up with names like “Ocean Dreams“. Local resident Moses, fishing on the Coney Island pier, says that he’s not surprised.
“Everyone wants to live by the ocean,” he says. Then he adds that what does bother him, is the noise from the construction – which echoed from building to building as he spoke.
He also projects that a lot more traffic will come with the new buildings. “Parking’s going to be crazy. It’s already pretty packed here in the Summer.”
Further along the pier, Mr. Jefferson is on a bench enjoying the sun. He comes here for peace and quiet, from New Jersey. “It’s pretty decent now. It’s not a crime infested, drug infested neighborhood,” he says. “What should they do here? Stabilize it, keep it as it is.”
With the booming development and the growing impacts of climate change, though, one thing that seems certain in Coney Island is change.
Residents have flagged the disconnect between the expansion of luxury and market-rate apartments, and the investment needs of the existing community.
Speaking with Fast Company, local Jaime Cartagena has said: “Building new luxury apartments here is like fixing your hat when there’s a hole in your boat…Look around, there are 33 empty storefronts on Mermaid Avenue. We don’t even have a rec center. We need things like community centers in the West End, places for kids to play.”
In districts throughout the City, the Rights Here project is asking people three simple questions:
– what place or building in the neighborhood means a lot to you and why? – are there things that you don’t like about what gets built in the neighborhood? – if you were to project 10 years from now and change anything, what would it be?
Here are some views from St George, on the North Shore of Staten Island – in Council District 49.
In Bella Giornata Luncheonette – known locally as Mike’s place – teacher Tracey and one of her students, Miriam, were getting their breakfast.
On places that mean a lot in the neighborhood, “can I do two?!” asked Tracey. “The theater is amazing…with the famous people that come here. And here, Mike’s place. This is the only place we eat, this is where we come for breakfast, lunch, whatever. The people are friendly, the place is absolutely clean, the food is outrageous.”
Tracey says that changes she’d like to see include making the nearby park safer for kids to play, and more places for children down by the waterfront – the center that used to be there was destroyed in hurricane Sandy.
Nearby, Kenya was buying food from a vendor who has been in the neighborhood for years. The theater – which was recently refurbished – was the first place that she mentioned as well, describing how she knew of a couple who had met each other there. The neighborhood’s growing, and she says there’s a need for more roads to accommodate the increasing traffic.
Joy Ghigliotti opened Hypno-Tronics Comics in 2013, with her late partner Ed Varuolo. The store’s first on her list of places in the neighborhood that mean a lot to her – “it’s the best store in the World!”
“And St George theater is awesome,” she adds, “it’s really cool that they refurbished it lovingly.”
Hypno-Tronics’ tagline is “giving tourists a reason to leave the Ferry Terminal since 2013”. Joy sees the city missing a real opportunity.
“You have a built in tourist attraction, the Staten Island ferry. Thousands of tourists take this every day just to get a view of the Statue of Liberty. How do you not have anything here? It boggles my mind. I’d change it so we actually have attractions and things down here.” Joy would have welcomed the wheel if it had come. The plan for a giant ferris wheel ended in October 2018 after six years of plans, due to legal issues and battles over funding.
One of the ads on the shiny new electronic stands at Hudson Yards assures us that Wells Fargo and Hudson Yards are “shaping New York’s Future Together.” Wells Fargo is the “preferred bank” of the $25 billion development that opened last week on Manhattan’s West side.
walk around Hudson Yards immediately puts many of our rights into question. For
The right to privacy
As people move around Hudson Yards, Related, the projects’ main developer, is collecting data about their movements. It will hold the data indefinitely. The electronic towers like the one with the Wells Fargo ad have interactive screens on the side, with tiny cameras installed. Jay Cross, President of Related Hudson Yards has said in a Real Deal interview that so far the primary use of the cameras is to convey information back to advertisers:
“We can say how many people looked at this ad, for how long. Did they seem interested, bored, were they smiling?”
That could just be the start of it, with Related able to share the data to third parties. “We can do what we want with our data,” Cross adds.
The rights to
participation and to public space
Forget about it! With significant State-level involvement, there were not the usual City-based checks and balances to make sure that development projects take local, public needs into account. As Samuel Stein, author of “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State” puts it, Hudson Yards is the “ultimate example of real estate-driven urban planning.”
Beyond the lack of community input on the process of developing Hudson Yards, is the fact that it is a development shamelessly targeted at a super-wealthy minority. New York Times’ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote:
“It is, at heart, a supersized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent.”
In many people’s minds, New York is associated with an image of chaotic, diverse streets and sidewalks. The sidewalks are places of spontaneous interaction – at times messy, often challenging and fraught with contention – but public interaction all the same.
Hudson Yards, with its concrete spaces surrounded by flat glass walls, destroys the idea of the street.
Ironically, Thomas Heatherwick, the architect of the “Vessel” (aka the “shawarma”) sees it as a “building extension of the public space”. He has described the twisting staircases as an opportunity for an “unspoken choreography as you see each other”. But through the lenses of selfie-taking, instagramming cameras, Vessel visitors don’t see each other, in fact it’s almost as if they don’t see themselves.
At the time of the opening, Related’s terms of service gave the right to all photos taken on the Vessel to the company – a policy it only tweaked after a public outcry.
The right to adequate housing
New York City is in the midst of a housing crisis, with over 60,000 people homeless each night, and increasing numbers of New Yorkers displaced from neighborhoods as they are unable to afford the rent. Hudson Yards – originally conceived by the Bloomberg administration following New York City’s unsuccessful Olympics bid – prioritized luxury apartments from the outset. Penthouses at Hudson Yards are going for $14 million and more, while only 1,300 apartments in the fully-completed complex will be subsidized at any level.
The right to
The 100% male and largely white line-up for the launch day says so much about the demographics of who calls the shots at Hudson Yards and who will reap the benefits.
The line-up conveyed a clear message, that this project is not by nor for the majority of New Yorkers.
Freedom of association
In 2018, Related began using non-union contractors on the Hudson Yards project, almost unheard of for major Manhattan developments. The building and construction trades council launched the “CountMeIn” campaign to fight back, but the Related move had stoked divisions between unions. Related reached a deal with the trades council conveniently right before launch day, hailing a “new model of collaboration”, and leaving many of the rank and file union members feeling betrayed.
Bennett Kremen, a member of Pipeliners Local 798 reportedly said: “Seeing this tragic betrayal of the ‘Count Me In’ movement now explains exactly why the great American labor movement and our struggling democracy are dying.”
At an event at the 92Y that coincided with the Hudson Yards opening day, New York magazine’s editor at large Carl Swanson said: “I guess it reflects a kind of new international style”.
True…an international style that’s recognizable from Dubai, to Singapore, to new cities mimicking Dubai that are popping up across Africa.
However much the Hudson Yards developers and beneficiaries might like to believe this is a valid future they are creating, it’s an unsustainable one. The fight for the right to the city is alive and well in new York, as it is in so many cities.
Last night, organizations from across the five boroughs gathered to call on elected officials to make the vision of a Green New Deal for New York City a reality: reducing emissions from buildings, transitioning to renewable energy and more.
The new 2019 report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change features community-based assessments of adaptation and equity that are led by grassroots organizations in Harlem, Hunts Point and Sunset Park.
The book lays bare the workings of the “real estate state”, especially as it relates to New York City. It also sheds light on the way in which city planners are caught between a motivation to make cities better for the public, and the demands of the market to inflate real estate values. Real estate is now a $217 trillion dollar industry, forming sixty percent of global assets.
Real estate interests have always had significant sway over the shape of cities, Stein acknowledges. What’s new is the extent of the sector’s influence over the political process, as other sectors like manufacturing have declined.
Along with this trend, homeownership in the US has declined and the cost of renting has gone up. The rent burden – the percentage of income that tenants put towards their housing – is now an average of 44 percent in black neighborhoods and 48 percent in Latino neighborhoods.
At a recent book launch event Stein and speakers from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx discussed the implications of the real estate state in New Yorkers’ daily lives – in neighborhoods from Mott Haven to Crown Heights – and what’s needed to challenge processes of gentrification.
While there is no silver bullet, Stein writes, urban social movements can take the lead in diagnosing the problems, organizing for state action to address them and imagining alternatives. And they must bring planners along.
There’s a strong sense that momentum is building.
Raquel Namuche of Ridgewood Tenants Union said she has drawn energy from the powerful local mobilization, led by women of color, that confronted Amazon over its plans for a second headquarters in Long Island City.
Esteban Girón of Crown Heights Tenants Union highlighted the very real chance that New York State will pass groundbreaking rent reforms this year, with the new make-up of the Senate that is more representative of tenants’ needs. “The answer for me is the rent laws,” he said. “Universal rent control, end the vacancy bonus and vacancy de-control, and make preferential rents permanent…just to start with.”
This growing State-level advocacy encourages Stein. He recognizes the challenges in building a strong movement of tenants – despite their huge numbers – that unifies across different housing types, and different challenges.
“Making sure that upstate and downstate issues don’t get treated differently, that we don’t do something that helps homeowners who are struggling to hold onto their homes but do nothing for tenants or homeless people…to make sure that it’s all dealt with is really hard to do,” says Stein. “It’s going to take a lot of power and mobilization, but it’s heartening to see it coming together.”
Most mornings, Rafael* waits with other day laborers on a street corner in Queens, for building owners or contractors to pick him up for work. Rights Here spoke with him about living day-to-day-day as an undocumented construction worker in NYC.
On the same day, the Comptroller had issued a report saying that deportations in NYC have increased 150% over the past two years, with the highest increase among those with no prior criminal convictions.
“What we have to do, is be cautious, and keep quiet. Watch,
listen, and keep quiet,” says Rafael. “I’m not fearful. The only fear is fear
“We have our rights. New York is the cradle of immigrants, after all. But that’s not to say that we’re ever going to push back in a dispute. The police will always give the benefit of the doubt to citizens. It’s not just the police, everyone we deal with.”
Work is slower in the Winter. On average Rafael and his co-workers get two or three days a week of work, for a daily rate of $150. That’s when the contractors pay. “We day laborers, we are prime targets for cheats,” Rafael says. “There have been times when we are driven for miles, get threatened with arms, work hard through the day in demolition or asbestos removal, and then don’t get paid.”
Chasing the unpaid wages is, Rafael said, verging on impossible. First, they are dealing with “ compañías fantasmas” – phantom companies. Second, registering complaints takes up a lot of time – time that could be spent getting more work. “I’ve been to my consulate, and they say I have to get an appointment with a lawyer…but you know, I can’t lose one or two days of work.” Despite the challenges, he says that any effort to criminalize unscrupulous contractors is welcome.
Rafael is from Ecuador, where he trained in communication
studies and also worked in art restoration (hence within construction, he specializes
in painting). “Many of us have professional qualifications,” he says. “It would
be wonderful if people asked us more often…what are your skills, what’s your
profession…what would you like to learn?”
*Name changed for anonymity
Read more: The Construction Fraud Task Force, formed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 2015 in partnership with various city agencies, pursues criminal investigations against real estate and development firms involved in safety abuses and wage theft. In New York State, wage theft accounts for more than $1 billion in lost earnings each year, affecting tens of thousands of workers.
Through a combination of imagination and community-building New Yorkers can take planning into their own hands, create powerful alternative visions for their neighborhoods and put them into action. This was one of the themes that ran through the recent event at CUNY’s Center for the Humanities, “The Unauthorized Plans for New York.”
The title played with the idea that an “unauthorized” biography is often the most authentic one. Rough at the edges perhaps, but it conveys nuance and reality in a way that often escapes the official, endorsed version, just as a community-led plan gets closest to the lived reality and needs of residents.
Aurash Khawarzad shared the story of the Upper Manhatta(n)Project, a multi-disciplinary strategy to prepare NYC for climate change. He emphasized the need to work on social and environmental issues on equal terms, and to involve residents directly in decision-making. Much of the process entails “talking to people, listening, and honoring what’s heard. Unless people have agency and autonomy over how cities are planned, displacement will continue to happen,” he said.
Aurash also appealed for a shift away from a “funnel” mode of planning – in which community perspectives are channeled by gatekeepers, and inevitably skewed by funding dynamics – towards a “platform” model where people can act directly.
Kazembe Balagun opened his segment by saying that his first experience in planning was when he was seven. Riding in a yellow cab he realized that the map on the back seat didn’t go above 96th street. In other words, according to the map his home, his community, in Harlem didn’t exist.
Black activists, intellectuals, and poets re-created that map and made it their own, Kazembe said, among them Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes (who in addition to being a writer, was a community gardener).
Dio Ganhdih emphasized the “invisibilization” of indigenous culture in New York City, and said how striking the erasure is – with just an occasional gesture here and there – compared to other US cities where the land’s indigenous roots are, sometimes, more present and honored.
Ashley Dawson, CUNY professor and author of Extreme Cities, chaired the event. His book argues that solutions to the growing threat of climate change have to lie with urban movements who are already fighting to remake their cities in a more just and equitable way.
The evening in CUNY’s Skylight room reflected a deep appreciation for “unauthorized plans” of the past from which much can still be learned, and for those which are yet to be created.
This year the City is reviewing the NYC Charter – i.e. the City’s constitution. One of the major items under review is land-use processes, including “proposals relating to the development of a comprehensive city planning framework for capital spending and land use.” Share your ideas and get involved here.