On March 10, two workers at a construction site in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, were straddling a steel beam 15 feet in the air while cutting one of its edges when the beam fell to the ground, sending the workers plunging to the first floor alongside it.
A laborer working at a construction site across the street witnessed the accident from the fourth-floor window he was working beside, and called in distress to the superintendent, who filmed the immediate aftermath: A steel beam lay across the construction site debris like a toppled obelisk to the side of the body of a man splay-legged on the ground with workers in yellow vests, paramedics and firefighters gathered around him.
Both workers were transported to Bellevue hospital by NYPD where, Laborers’ Local Union 79—a New York City–based union that has been a vocal supporter of the rights of immigrant workers—believes, the second worker was treated for two broken legs—and where the man who was seen in the video still remains, over two months later, in a coma.
A review by The Nation of nine Environmental Control Board (ECB) violations and two Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports related to the incident reveals an egregious lack of safety standards and identifies the man who is now in a coma as Maximo Parra, an immigrant construction worker from Ecuador.
Parra’s coworkers, the majority of whom also immigrated from Latin America, say that accidents like this are all too common in the nonunion demolition industry, along with the many exploitative practices they are subjected to on the job.
With roughly a dozen core members, and a rotating cadre of up to 70 additional members on the periphery, these immigrant demolition workers have organized under the name Los Demolicionistas—“the Demolitionists”—to fight back against the perpetrators of their exploitation, Alba Services, the Manhattan-based construction company charged with managing demolition at their worksite, and to draw attention to the developers who employ the company.
“There’s a few companies out there that are operating in the nonunion sector,” said Chaz Rynkiewicz, vice president and director of organizing for Local 79. “Alba, currently, is the biggest exploiter of workers in the demolition industry in New York City.”
The majority of Los Demolicionistas have worked out of Alba Services’ main site, the Terminal Warehouse Project—an ambitious renovation of a historic building in the West Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
Photographs of the building’s classic, pre-war brick facade are juxtaposed on the developer’s website with realistic renderings of the finished building, with wall-to-wall windows and wide, walkable hallways facing into the courtyard and its many green spaces.
The California State Teachers Retirement System (CALSTRs), whose organization has a 30 percent stake in the project sponsored by JP Morgan, L&L Holding Company, and the Pacific Investment Management Company LLC (PIMCO), a private equity company, who recently acquired the project’s principal backer, Columbia Property Trust, are the main developers of this project. PIMCO’s list of clients include a majority of union pension funds like the AFL-CIO, the Major League Baseball Players Association of New York, the Screen Actors Guild-Producers Pension Plan, and Teamsters unions across several states. Los Demolicionistas have seized upon this fact at their rallies, carrying signs reading, “Attention Union Pension Funds: How Will PIMCO Spend your Future?”
Environmental certifications are proudly displayed on the project’s website—in keeping with the project’s marketing as a sustainable Shangri-la. The main impediment to this seductive vision are the workers’ allegations of exploitation against Alba.
Former Alba workers who have since joined Local 79 allege that workplace accidents occur more frequently at Alba-run sites because the company’s workers are typically less experienced, new hires are not provided with proper training, and more seasoned workers are frequently asked to perform jobs outside of their area of expertise.
In one instance, Alba worker Gustavo Correa, who worked for the company for four years before joining Local 79, described seeing a metalworker slice open a finger and then cover the wound with a bandaid. The worker was told not to go to the hospital and that Alba would pay him for the week.
“They try to cover everything because they don’t want to go through workers’ compensation or they don’t want to have any issues on that job site,” added Correa.
Correa recalled another incident in March in which an ambulance was called for a coworker who was said to have passed out on the job site, possibly because of a Covid-19 infection. Correa says that construction debris had actually fallen on the worker and knocked her temporarily unconscious. She was too afraid to call for help, so a coworker called 911, and the site safety manager reported the incident as due to the coronavirus.
“They would tell them, If you go to the hospital, make sure you take your shirt off so that it doesn’t say ‘Alba,’ and don’t say you got hurt at work, on the job site,” said another former Alba worker, Alejo Herrera, who did two stints at Alba, the most recent of which lasted for three years, before joining Local 79.
In a move that seems to have been pulled straight from the scenes of an old western, workers arrived at the Terminal Warehouse Project site on a February morning to find a Spanish-language flyer setting a bounty on 22 workers who had “engaged in workers’ compensation fraud.” The flier offered $5,000 to anyone who provided information that led to the arrest and conviction of the 22 named men.
“I’ve been in construction 30 years—I’ve never heard of this before. I’ve never heard of this in any industry, bounties on people that got injured and then rewards for workers that will come forward,” said Rynkiewicz. “If they’ll put that up publicly, imagine what they tell them behind the scenes.”
At least three of the men named on the flier are actively engaged in personal injury lawsuits against the company.
Several workers recently brought their paychecks to Local 79 concerned that they had been issued not by Alba but by an unknown company called Caledonia Carting Services Inc. Members of the union were able to identify Caledonia as what is known as a construction body shop—brokers who hire workers on behalf of a third party, and who take a cut from the workers’ wages—and link them to Alba through various public record lawsuits. Local 79 has dealt with similar construction body shops before and was instrumental in passing legislation designed to crack down on such predatory behavior. What makes this case unusual is that Caledonia appears to exclusively provide payroll services and seems to exist only in service of Alba.
Funneling their payroll through Caledonia allows Alba to keep their insurance costs low and to offload the risk of reputational damage onto Caledonia, which effectively provides no more than a safe haven to park those workers’ compensation claims. When companies like CALSTRs go looking for Alba’s workers’ compensation claim rating as part of their due diligence, the company appears to be a very low risk hire.
Alba’s actions don’t just drive down their own costs of doing business, says Local 79. It fundamentally changes how the industry is able to operate. Demolition companies who are not engaging in exploitative practices will carry higher operational costs and will have a difficult time competing against the Albas of the industry.
“If we are going to fight against Alba,” said Correa, “at least if they take us out, many people will benefit.” According to Local 79, at least 50 demolition workers have now defected to the union and Los Demolicionistas say they view unionization within the industry as their ultimate goal. One worker said that many of his friends have started asking him how they can join the union too. He tells them that you have to put in the work to organize your workplace first, that becoming a union member won’t happen overnight, but he thinks that the effort is worth it for the overall increase in quality of life. “My family’s better, my wife and my kids are better,” said Herrera. “You know, that’s what we work for—for the family, for the wife or the kids.”