NYC construction

Being the Communist on the Job Site: A Letter from a Construction Worker in NYC

I’m a unionized construction worker in New York City, organized in Steamfitters Local 638. I’m also a communist. You may not think the building trades are a hotbed of Marxist politics, but there is always a percolating class instinct just beneath the surface.

We’re currently working on a gut renovation at the DC37 union headquarters. The project is 100% building-trades built, not open-shop, so all the workers on the job are supposed to be union. But this week, a non-union shop came to our site to unload material for a fuel tank that’s being built in the basement. I was at lunch when I got a phone call from my work partner, who was outside on a park bench, and he informed me that a non-union company was unloading material in the loading dock.

I immediately ran downstairs, introduced myself, asked what they were doing—they were installing a fuel tank for a boiler—asked them for their union books, and they told me that they were non-union. I said, “Okay, this is nothing against you, but I’m going to need you to put all of that down while I speak to my business agent.” I called him and let him know and he told me to make sure that they don’t bring anything on the job and that he was going to call me back. I spoke to their supervisor and asked him who he was working for, and—get this—he was working for the SAME company I’m working for.

I spoke to our project manager and let him know that he is absolutely not allowed to have non-union workers on this site, and he apologized and said he didn’t know. (Yeah right, then why did he have them come at lunch time?!)

I used the time after to speak with the non-union workers and told them it was nothing personal, asked how long they had been working for the shop, if they liked it, and asked if they wanted to be in the union, and a few of them said yes. I told them I couldn’t promise anything, but to take my number down, text me, and I will see if I can help them get into the union. They obliged.

The episode turned out to be a gold mine for political agitation. My coworkers seemed a little confused so I used the opportunity to say “this is a union job, not an open-shop job. We absolutely need to show solidarity with the boilermakers, because if we don’t have their backs, why would they have ours? This is how we build the cross-trade solidarity that will help us win struggles in the future. Open shops are the killer of unions and we must absolutely take a stand and make sure no non-union shops do any work on this job, even if it’s not our work.” And they all agreed, including the foreman.

I watched as my coworkers’ eyes lit up. One coworker said “this is what the union is all about! That’s how it used to be, when people took a stand—we need to get back to that!”

After work, I texted back the non-union workers, and now we’re setting up a meeting with the union organizers to bring them into the union. I’m going to keep a close eye on this, because I don’t trust union bureaucrats. I will make sure to get regular updates from the non-union workers—and will also see if they are interested in communism.

Consciousness is changing on the job site. The day before the incident, I brought up the topic of how our union leadership is selling us out and this set off a conversation between my coworkers about capitalism, inflation, and even wage slavery. I only sat back and observed! Someone summed up the mood, saying “we are always getting screwed.” At this rate, it shouldn’t take long to establish a communist cell within the union!

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