Recently, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a landmark $1.5 million sexual harassment settlement with Trade Off, my former employer.
In the real-estate industry, Trade Off is known as a body shop – a provider of cheap, nonunion Black and Brown construction laborers to big developers like the Related Companies.
I was one of the 18 primarily Black women survivors of sexual abuse or assault at Trade Off job sites who were involved in the Attorney General James’ settlement.
While working at Hudson Yards, a Related project, I was subjected to constant harassment from Trade Off foremen. I was regularly bombarded with sexual solicitations and profanities. But other Black women I worked with went through even more horrific experiences. They were told to perform sex acts for pay and overtime compensation, and assaulted by male co-workers.
Trade Off failed to address repeated complaints, and instead protected sexual abusers.
I know many Black women and formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who struggle to re-enter our economy and society while working in exploitative nonunion construction jobs like the one I had at Hudson Yards. These dangerous jobs barely provide enough money for survival. And the intentional exploitation of mostly Black and Brown bodies had led to rampant sexual abuse.
Body shop workers are often in desperate need of work after getting released from jail. They must maintain employment as a condition of their parole. They face the real threat of re-imprisonment if parole officers discover they are out of work. Complaining about job conditions, sexual harassment and other mistreatment can cost these workers their freedom.
In recent years, body shops have rapidly expanded their footprint, with help from some of the biggest players in New York’s real-estate industry.
Firms like Trade Off make big money sending Black and Brown construction laborers to work on development projects for poverty wages, with little training, and no benefits – projects that, until recently, would have provided good union jobs and real pathways to the middle class.
We deserve to be treated as human beings, not as bodies to be abused and exploited on construction sites.
If NBC could fire Matt Lauer and the Weinstein Company could fire Harvey Weinstein, why was it okay for Related to remain silent when the facts regarding sexual abuse on their job sites first became public two years ago?
The #MeToo movement has successfully shamed and pressured high-profile media and entertainment companies into firing predatory men.
A similar moment of moral reckoning is long overdue for New York’s real-estate industry.
So, what should be done? For starters, developers with a history of using body shops should be barred from city and state consideration for taxpayer-supported projects. That will help diminish the power and role of firms like Trade Off, which continue to control too much of the workforce and hiring on these projects, often with little scrutiny or oversight from government.
Equally important, New York’s elected officials and electoral candidates who claim to care about Black people should support making it easier for construction workers to unionize.
When the best or only option for Black New Yorkers after getting released from jail is a dangerous, low-wage construction job, they are still imprisoned within a racist system.
Over the course of their lives, formerly incarcerated people earn far less than people who have never been in jail. That trend is most painfully seen and felt by Black people, especially among those who don’t ever get a real shot to join a union.
Typically, here in New York, union wages for construction laborers on large projects that are dangerous and require intense focus will be around $40 an hour plus benefits. But when Black re-entry workers get these same construction jobs through body shops, they barely earn $20 an hour, and they aren’t given proper protective gear or safety training, let alone affordable healthcare or a real path to a stable, middle-class union construction career.
When it comes to raising standards for re-entry employment, New York can and must do better– especially as income inequality and the racial wealth gap continue to worsen.
It’s time for city and state government to expand the Pathways to Apprenticeship (P2A) program, a proven model of increasing the number of formerly incarcerated Black New Yorkers trained for and placed into union construction careers.
Unionization helps all construction workers earn middle-class wages, affordable healthcare, and retirement benefits. This achievement of economic security can withstand recessions and even pandemics like the one we’re in right now.
This is so crucial for policymakers to understand, especially at a time when New York’s Black communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19, and will struggle the most to recover financially and find good-paying jobs.
Unions have a track record of helping women and people of color not only win higher wages and benefits, but also ensuring our voices are heard on the job.
For Black women construction workers like me, unionization and collective bargaining are essential for creating workplaces where contractors and developers treat us with the respect men often take for granted.
Tierra Williams is an advocate for women in New York’s construction industry, and an organizer with Laborers’ Local 79.