Coronavirus and social distancing in the construction industry

Social distancing in construction

Carpenters and building trade workers across the country are in ferment.

Here’s what one trades worker reports: “Currently I’m working on a hospital addition (which I admit feels necessary), with hand washing stations, and we work fairly spread out. So I count myself pretty lucky.
“My concern is that guys are coming in to work sick, there’s no rules in place regarding elevator maximums, and there has been no communication from our GC. There’s probably 100 guys on site
. I had to go to the jobsite trailer to talk to our safety guy myself and then was told that we’ll only shut down if the government makes us and that otherwise “the plan” is if someone tests positive that they’ll shut down for a week of cleaning.
“In Washington state testing is limited and you can only get tested if you’re showing symptoms. [Note that it’s too late then because by then you’d have been infecting others for two or three weeks while you’re incubating the virus!]
“I’m uneasy about it. I think we need stricter, enforced health and safety rules, and a clear plan from our leadership. I understand not getting something specific at the beginning, but by now there should be something.”

Even in those states and cities where there is an order for shutting down “non essential” work sites, it’s more or less left up to the contractor to decide if their project is essential or not. And what’s “essential” to them is their profits. And even on jobs like this hospital addition, which probably is essential, the contractors put their profits before the health and safety of the workers.

Union leadership
Meanwhile, like the leadership of the rest of the unions, the Carpenter Union leadership is Missing In Action. Look at the letter from Bob Alvarado, CEO of the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council
posted on their web site. (Note that the fact that this is a union isn’t even mentioned in the title!) Not a single word about health and safety on the job. Not a single word about shutting down jobs because of the risk to the lives of the members. Ninety percent is on the bureaucratic procedures to follow, ended with the “inspiring” message that “if we band together and support each other, we will get through this like all previous times of adversity.” Yes, but how? And why is any real leadership totally lacking in this time of crisis?

You don’t have to go far to get the answer. Just click on “employer resources” and this letter will appear saying “Today’s UBC is focused on a simple reality: Our members succeed when their employers succeed…. workers and employers are truly partners.” In the interests of this “partnership” (which is more like that of an abusive husband and his wife), the union bureaucracy won’t do anything that will endanger the contractors’ profits. That’s why they won’t exercise the slightest bit of leadership in this crisis. That’s why they refuse to come out to the jobs and shut them down if the members want that or enforce serious and strict health standards. (You can also be certain that the business reps and “organizers” are now practicing social distancing and saying, “I’m not going out onto the jobs and risk getting coronavirus.” But it’s okay for the members to do so, just like it’s okay for the members to work without any sick pay while the union bureaucrats get at least two weeks sick pay!)


The union leadership/contractor partnership is making the working carpenters sick… literally!

Many members have been unhappy with how the union is being run for years now. But they know what they’re up against if they try to change it – being belittled, ostracized maybe even being blackballed. So they figured it was tolerable and just sucked it up and carried on living life. Now, we face a crisis and we need a union like a fish needs water. So carpenters and other trades workers need to organize themselves for their own protection. Here’s some ideas on what you can do: 

  • Get together with a few of those on your job that you trust and jointly organize a social distancing meeting of the entire crew, including carpenters, the mechanical trades, laborers… the whole nine yards.
  • Decide if your job is “essential” or not and if you want to shut it down or not. Hold a secret vote on it. If you decide to shut it down, organize for everybody to walk off together, again with social distancing.
  • If you decide to keep it going, then decide what health and safety conditions you need, including wash stations accessible to all (at least one on every floor of multi-story jobs) elect a health and safety team to enforce those conditions. This would include making sure that few enough workers are on the job elevator so that you can practice social distancing.
  • Use the media. Call the press if there is something important on the issue.
  • Finally, this is just the most clear example of where this labor-management “partnership” has led us. We need to build opposition caucuses in every local union and link them all up together to make our unions really fight for us.
  • Talk it up with workers wherever you are. If you go to the supermarket, talk with the clerks. If you see city workers, talk it up with them. Construction workers are not alone as this leaflet from a union grocery clerk shows.

If you would like to read more about how the Carpenters Union and the entire labor movement got to this point, see our pamphlet What Happened to Our Unions?

Update: Within an hour of this posting, we received an email from a brother in Ohio that his contractor has been notified that somebody on his site has tested positive. Given the lack of readily available tests, it’s overwhelmingly most likely that this individual exhibited symptoms before she or he got tested. That means that they were probably contagious on the job for two or three weeks up until then.

Social distancing in construction

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