Cityview: Flush With Victory

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The following article was originally published this August in GANGBOX, an e-mail newsletter dedicated to transforming construction unions.

I am currently the shop steward for Jonathan Metal and Glass at 99 Park Ave. And we had a little excitement at the job today. It seems that the general contractor, a company called PC, Inc., went ahead and demolished the men’s room on this one-floor job–and didn’t make adequate sanitary arrangements for the hundred-person crew.

Up until yesterday, the men’s room had been adequate for the 98 men on the crew, with three toilets, three urinals and two sinks. The laborers were pretty good about supplying paper towels and toilet paper. But after they demoed that bathroom out today, the GC expected us to share the ladies’ room with the two women on the job.

Problem was, the ladies’ room had only one toilet that didn’t flush, and no sink. The two women on the site, a Local 3 electrician and a Local 638 fitter, actually had to improvise their own bathroom facility arrangements on an occupied floor, because the one on the job site was unfit for them to use.

So today one of the fitters came up with a plan. He came around after coffee and told us that we should all go to the bathroom at once, and line up at the one toilet. He would signal us by walking around and saying, really loud, “I gotta piss!” and we’d all walk out. Everybody agreed.

About 20 minutes later, the fitter walked around the site and yelled out “I gotta piss, really bad!” And everybody lined up in front of the one bathroom, as if we were waiting to use it. And we stopped the entire job. All of the carpenters walked out also; the sheetrockers with Techno; the woodworkers with Celtic; the floorlayers; and with the outfit I’m with, Jonathan Metal and Glass, me, the other local guy and the two company men; and all four company glaziers.

One of the electricians said, “We’re costing them a thousand dollars a minute!”

Of course, this got the GC’s undivided attention.

So after about 10 minutes, PC’s supervisor made an arrangement. He got Techno to get a couple of carpenters in there, and he got the plumber in there also. When he told us he’d fix it, we all returned to work. And a couple of hours later, they had four stalls, with shower curtains for doors. We still didn’t have sinks in this bathroom, and the two women still didn’t have a facility they could use on the floor, but we had made the contractor at least partially correct the problem. And of course, nobody got docked for the work stoppage.

This shows the power workers have–especially in a time-sensitive business like construction–to get our grievances solved, quickly, by just stopping work. If the hammers stop pounding, the drills stop cutting and the wrenches stop torquing, the money we make for the contractors and the owners stops flowing, and they have to do what we ask.

In August of 1998, the carpenters working for Nastasi Associates and Component Assembly Systems, doing the Sheetrock at the Condé Nast Building, 4 Times Square, proved the same point. The building didn’t have air conditioning, and, like in most high-rise office buildings, the windows didn’t open. A big problem, since it was 100 degrees nearly every day that month.

Nastasi and CAS pushed their framers and rockers hard to make that piecework bonus. It’s hard to make production if you are on the edge of heatstroke. So the hundred or so carpenters with those two contractors stopped. And Lehr, the GC, had no choice but to get the AC going.

The lesson here is, if you have a problem on a job–with safety, or sanitation, or scabs on the jobsite or whatever–the best way to solve it is to put down that screwgun, put down that SkilSaw, climb down off that ladder, and just stop.

And they will have to listen. Or pay the consequences.

Gregory A. Butler, a member of United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America Local 608, is the webmaster of GANGBOX: Construction Workers News Service.