Opinion

Construction safety bill would hurt minority workers

By Charlene Nimmons |  

September 25, 2017 |  

(Michael Godek/Shutterstock)

I am a NYCHA resident who has spent my career advocating for our public housing communities – and I can tell you why we oppose Intro 1447-C, even as it stands on the verge of City Council approval. 

Some recent op-eds and statements have claimed that the only opponents of Intro 1447-C are developers or “real estate industry forces.” I am against Intro 1447-C because I know that it could take away job opportunities from black and brown construction workers, including those living in public housing. For months, I have been working with other NYCHA residents, construction leaders and advocacy groups like the NAACP New York State and One Hundred Black Men of New York to send that message to the City Council.

It is disappointing to see some other groups come out of the woodwork – right before the bill receives a Council vote – to claim that our months of advocacy have had nothing to do with the rights of workers. That is just not true.

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Let’s be clear – I support increasing construction safety standards, just as I have said many times previously. Anyone who claims that opposing Intro 1447-C means opposing safety standards is either misunderstanding the issue or being dishonest.

What I oppose – and what thousands of other NYCHA residents oppose – is any legislation that makes it disproportionately harder for black and brown workers to gain employment in an industry that is still not yet diverse enough. That is exactly the kind of impact that Intro 1447-C could have on our communities.

As Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has said, there are clear and simple ways to increase construction safety standards in a more equitable way – one in which nonunionized workers of color still have fair and equal access to the required training. That could come in the form of more mandatory safety training from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on all New York City construction sites, not just some – something my organization and I strongly support.

The problem here is that Intro 1447-C would not just require additional OSHA safety training on construction sites, it would also mandate expensive union-style training that is not accessible or affordable to tens of thousands of nonunionized workers of color throughout our city. It would mean that even many workers who have received safety training will be disqualified from job opportunities because they cannot quickly and easily access training that, ironically enough, is not even solely focused on safety.

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Personally, I view the bill’s many additional requirements as just another way for construction unions to keep people of color out of the industry. And let’s remember that roughly half of the construction fatalities this year have been on union sites – so it is not like the need for increased safety only exists in the nonunionized sector.

As a NYCHA resident and advocate, let me tell you something about my experience with construction unions: by and large, they have not been our friends. The Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York has a record of failing to comply with the project labor agreement that requires its unions to hire a significant number of public housing residents in NYCHA capital improvement projects. We have raised concerns about this lack of compliance many times, but the unions have not rectified the problem. 

Now that Intro 1447-C is so close to being passed by the City Council, we must continue our advocacy and also focus on sending our message to the 14-member task force that this legislation will create. That task force should understand that it must act in the interest of safety and opportunity for all workers – union and nonunion – and not use the idea of safety as a political tool to prevent black and brown workers from gaining a fair shot at jobs. 

Regardless of what happens this week with the vote on Intro 1447-C, that discussion is far from over.

Charlene Nimmons is a NYCHA resident and executive director of Public Housing Communities, Inc.

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