Working-Class Voices: First Person Accounts of Life and Work

Down to Bare Bones: A New York Laborer Shares Her Story

Editor’s Note:

For this article, New Labor Forum’s Working-Class Voices columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Jewel Tolliver, a laborer and member of the Construction & General Building Laborers’ Local 79 in New York City, and graduate of NEW (New Employment for Women) a pre-apprenticeship program introducing women to careers in skilled construction.

I’m a laborer for Local 79 in New York City. Any woman in construction will tell you that you have to really want to be there. It’s going to be hard some days. Not everybody wants to see you or is accepting of you there. But you gotta take it one day at a time. Just remember what you’re there for, ‘cause you’re there to work, you’re there to have a life, make a living, and make those benefits.

Right now I’m on an interior demolition job which means breaking down a building. Taking the walls, floors, ceiling, and the wires out, and putting it down to its bare bones. In New York City, office buildings get rented out by different companies every year, most of the time that will be an interior demolition job. That’s one thing we do in Local 79, but we’re known for mason tending. That’s assisting the bricklayers, carrying the blocks, mixing the mortar, and other materials to build the structure of a building. We do anything you can think of: scaffold work, break down a wall to clear a way for other trades to work, or chop out a pocket in the ground for someone to lay a pipe, anything they need us to do.

My favorite project I’ve worked on was Moynihan Station on 33rd Street and Ninth Avenue, better known as the Farley Building. It’s over one hundred years old, and at one point it was the largest post office in the United States. What made that job so special was that it’s a restoration job. We were fireproofing existing steel beams. You learn a lot more about construction on restoration projects because there has to be a lot of improvisation. We had access to areas of the building that had been closed off for decades. There was so much random detail work on staircases, and the huge, thick marble floors. All of these details of course were protected with plywood. I was just in awe of the durability, and craftsmanship that workers created so many years ago with so little technology. Even wood from back then was stronger, and had much more character. I can only imagine how beautiful it was in its heyday.

There is a difference between union and non-union. A good union site is going to be…. concerned about safety…. using a lot of high lighting and high visibility….. There’s always a clear exit sign

On a job you want to protect your face mostly, and make sure you’re wearing safety glasses when working with power tools. Definitely wear a hard hat, good quality pants, steel toe composite boots, something that will protect your feet is really important, as are gloves. We’re touching so many different types of points and materials that could be harmful for your skin. A good company will supply you with the safety items you need if you have to tie off and have a harness, a safety vest, maybe some glasses, a hardhat. As far as what you wear every day, that’s on you. I do union construction. There is a difference between union and non-union. A good union site is going to be well lit, they are really concerned about safety, making sure you see certain things, if there are hazards, using a lot of high lighting and high visibility so you can see in different directions. There’s always a clear exit sign.

It’s still chaos because it’s construction. As organized as you want it to be, especially in large jobs, you’ll have several trades on the floor working at one time. The job of the super is to create a schedule and some organization around all that chaos so everyone’s clear on what they’re supposed to be doing, and where. If you ask me to break down a wall, the power needs to be shut off; or if I’m going to be cutting pipes the super has to make sure that no one else is working on them. I’m sure there is some sort of timeline, plan, and schedule, but things often don’t go according to plan.

The foreman is the leader of the team. He’s there to communicate with the supers and delegate tasks. It can be frustrating sometimes when the super and foreman butt heads or want you to do a conflicting task because they are both your boss. But that’s a part of construction, figuring out exactly who to listen to, and when. You don’t want to get laid off over a misunderstanding or miscommunication, though this can happen.

There should also be a shop steward on the team. Some stewards take their role more seriously than others, but they are supposed to be there to have your back as far as grievances, pay, ensuring certain rules are being followed, and no other trade is doing your trade’s work on a job. A good shop steward might not be well liked by the foreman or the company. There’s so much noise, and things going on around you. You gotta be a clear communicator. You’ve gotta be loud, and a lot of us can’t hear either, so you gotta be really loud.

There can be easy days, and then days where you are earning every single dollar, and then some. They owe you money for how you worked that day. For example, if you’re doing mason tending that’s pretty heavy duty stuff. You might be carrying blocks because at the point of mason tending there’s isn’t any elevator or type of structure that could take you to the next level. A lot of times you have to carry the materials up to the floor. In my experience, there has been nothing that has exhausted me more than mason tending. I would have just enough energy to come home, make something to eat, and go to sleep. It definitely depends on the trade, and what you’re doing that day. Not every day is going to beat you down like that.

How many jobs you get in a year depends on how long [each job] lasts. It could be a major job like LaGuardia Airport renovations. I was there for maybe four or five months, but that job is probably going to last another five years, and some people will probably be there the full five years. You can get moved around or get laid off from a site, then you go to another. You can have a year where you work at twenty different jobs or a year where you’re at one site every day. That’s the thing about construction, it’s always unpredictable. The work hours vary depending on the project, trade, and needs of the site. Most trades work eight-hour days, five to six days a week. Laborers are known for having a lot of overtime (OT). We are the first and last ones on the job because we start work as early as 5 a.m., and can end as late as 10 p.m. Sometimes you won’t know if there is overtime until after lunch or an hour before you leave. There are jobs where the schedule is ten-hour days, six days a week, and mandatory OT. If they are trying to push a large job, and get certain things done, you may have a mandatory seven-day push for all trades, like at LaGuardia Airport. We get time and a half, and double time for Sunday, but the taxes kill you.

Our pay structure is an hourly rate: If you’re an apprentice you get a rate dependent on what year you are in that apprenticeship. It’s about $38 an hour. You can also earn night differential, which is a few more dollars per hour, depending on the shift. You get put in different job sites continuously for training. They don’t leave you hanging doing your apprenticeship. You get placed. We have a list we put our names on, and someone calls us from that list for different jobs around the city or wherever we say we want to work. When you journey out you still use the list. It could take a few weeks or months depending on what you’re available for. The idea in construction is that you make personal connections. Even if I don’t have a job and my name is on the list, I can always call someone, and say “Hey do you have any work? I could use a job right now.” That person would be able to put you on their job site or on a team they’re starting. That’s the idea, to network so you’re utilizing all of these things at the same time: Your own resources, the list, and the union. It’s definitely a balancing act. You get unemployment when you’re not working, but it’s mostly managing our money and saving it properly that creates a safety net for us. I should be able to go without working for a little bit if I manage my money properly.

I went through two apprenticeships: Nontraditional Employment for Women or NEW is a pre-apprenticeship program. When I came into NEW I had no idea about construction. I was literally just looking for a job, and open to whatever. NEW builds your confidence. They have a lot of tradeswomen speakers that get you through those weeks with a real picture, so you can decide if this is something you want to do or not. What really stood out for me at the time was the pay, and benefits. You have to work at least 700 hours in a year to receive them, but the benefits are great. We get full dental, eye, and a medical prescription card. This is a big deal for me after not having insurance for years. Now I get new glasses every year, go to the dentist once or twice a year, and only have $20 dollar copays. It really gives me peace of mind knowing if something ever happened to me I have health benefits. I worked so many different retail, short-term jobs. I was also a dental assistant and had gone to school for that, but I was getting paid $12 an hour. I didn’t have any benefits, and worked 60 hours a week. There was something wrong with that picture, ya know?

[N]on-union laborers . . . tell me they go to work and their safety materials aren’t provided. It could be hot outside, and their site doesn’t provide water

Through NEW I was able to get a direct referral into Local 79. You complete the program, and they have a special relationship with certain unions that are able to get you straight into their apprenticeship programs. I didn’t have to go through a waitlist or stand on line trying to get the first application. That’s really common in getting into a trade union in New York City. I was able to join Local 79’s apprenticeship program. The union had a three-week unpaid trial period like a boot-camp or crash course in everything you’ll be expected to do as a good laborer.

I meet non-union laborers from time to time. They tell me they go to work, and their safety materials aren’t provided. It could be hot outside, and their site doesn’t provide water. Basic things you would assume would be a common sense part of a work environment. If it’s not forced under a union, or through the law, a lot of these companies won’t provide it. I’ll see people working on top of scaffolds and they don’t have a harness on, or people throwing out material who aren’t wearing gloves while picking up wood or block. They’ll use tools with no goggles provided or face shields. They’re inhaling different fumes and toxins, and are not educated on the danger of exposure. I see it all the time: they’ll scrape the fireproofing off a wall. Fireproofing is fiberglass. It’s very harmful to inhale when it’s in that state. If you were on a union site they would give you health and safety standards for dealing with it or you would know them because you were trained properly to handle certain materials. It’s really sad, and doesn’t get enough attention. Some of these companies or developers are taking advantage with non-union construction. A lot of the workers are immigrants, and undocumented people of color. It’s really not right. They get injured all the time. These workers don’t get benefits, many of them are getting paid $10 or $15 an hour.

Unfortunately, there is definitely more and more non-union construction going on in New York City. The trade unions are getting beat up right now. This current administration seems to be doing everything in their power to reduce labor safety, pay, and benefits. They are trying to undermine our apprenticeship programs by creating their own called Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (known as IRAP). It is not in place yet, but they want to completely avoid a union-regulated apprenticeship program. IRAPs would not provide a living wage, benefits, health, and safety nor are they focused on longevity or skill. The amount of training that I got in my apprenticeship program really made me confident, and educated on what I’m doing on a construction site. I think that’s helped me have a long career, so I don’t hurt myself or anyone around me. I’m able to have a living wage, benefits, and actually have a life. Why create an apprenticeship program that’s not benefiting anyone, but the company, and the bottom line?

There’s a lot more women in construction than there used to be…. It’s more about the people who want to work… and women are people who want to work

I’ve made it a point to center myself amongst tradeswomen. I reach out to them, and want to keep that network strong for myself. There’s a lot more women in construction than there used to be. At the job site I’m at now I see three or four women. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but that’s a lot of women to be in one room at the same time on a construction site. I think there’s a shift that’s occurring. It’s more about the people who want to work are working right now, and women are people who want to work. We have a tradeswoman meetup the third Friday of every month, and a Facebook group. Two of my tradeswomen friends host it, and I met them through the meetups. We meet at bars and anybody can come. It’s an open invitation and tradesmen can come, too. We like to talk, laugh, and sometimes we complain. It’s a release for us, and our experiences, like a sisterhood. We can understand each other best. We might have friends, family, or maybe even men in our lives that are in construction, but they really can’t understand you sometimes. I think it’s a good tool for any woman in the trades to connect with other women.

I deal with sexism just the way any other woman would deal with it in life. As a woman, these will be things you deal with no matter what industry you’re in to varying degrees. When it comes to the trades, I think a lot of times it’s not necessarily intentional. A lot of guys are raised traditionally. They’ll just see a woman working, and it doesn’t look right to them. They don’t like to see a woman working like that. They might think they’re helping you, but they’re actually inhibiting you. Instead of just allowing you to work, prove yourself, and be strong, they’ll say “Oh go sweep” or just go do this over here. They consider themselves doing you a favor. It can be really dismissive and demeaning that their personal opinions about what a woman can or cannot do, or what a “lady” is or not, is affecting my career. A lot of the time you’re in an apprenticeship, and want to learn as much as you can, but some men will just feel more comfortable speaking to other men. I don’t think it’s personal. Maybe they don’t want to say the wrong thing or get caught up in a bad position. A lot of men are scared of interaction with women in the workplace. They don’t want to make a joke and have it be labeled sexual harassment. Or they don’t really know how to talk to someone that’s not their daughter if you’re a young woman that’s their daughter’s age. I don’t think there’s a lot of bad intent behind some of the sexism.

A lot of guys . . . don’t like to see a woman working like that. Instead of allowing you to work, prove yourself, and be strong, they’ll say “Oh, go sweep” . . .

Of course you do meet assholes, but I haven’t actually encountered as many as one would think would stereotypically be in the construction trades. No one is just like, oh I don’t wanna work with a woman on this job. I can only speak of my own experience. Everyone has their own unique experience even if we all are women.

I know a lot of strong, capable women in the trades right now, a lot of women in leadership positions. I see apprenticeship programs like NEW, and how many women are interested, have a desire to work. There’s not many jobs right now providing the kind of lifestyle you can achieve in the trades with this pay and benefits. A lot of women have children they just want to take care of, and that alone drives most of the women I know into the trades. If there’s going to be a job that can provide for someone, then women are going to want it. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Author Biography

Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY, and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925, and women organizing in the workplace.