by JUAN GONZALEZ
Why are so many people shocked that 30,000
or 40,000 construction workers shut down midtown Manhattan this
week with a raucous protest?
Hasn't anyone noticed what's been building
for the past year in this city and all around the country with
The signs are everywhere.
A growing number of workers are fed up with
having their jobs downsized, cut back, contracted out, shipped
overseas or otherwise redefined - almost always for less pay.
They are tired of hearing news reports about
the greatest economic boom and lowest unemployment in decades,
when the fact is a third of American workers have been reduced
to part-timers, many with no health insurance.
They are fed up enough to fight back, and
the low unemployment rate has made them secure enough to stand
up to their bosses.
From the United Parcel Service strike last
summer to the auto strike against General Motors to the telephone
strike in Puerto Rico, more militant labor conflicts have erupted.
Just look at the pace of protest in this
Since the beginning of the year, we've had
two one-day strikes by yellow-cab drivers, a march and one-day
strike by pushcart vendors, 20,000 hospital workers marching for
a new contract, an ongoing strike by cemetery workers and now
a construction protest that shut every building site in Manhattan
for a day.
"There's something in the air,"
said Jeff Grabelsky, an expert on the construction industry at
Cornell University's School of Labor Relations.
What's behind all this?
"Enough is enough," said Brian
McLaughlin, who as president of the Central Labor Council is the
city's top union leader. "No matter the industry, we're facing
a race to the lowest possible standard for labor."
That's why even the Building & Construction
Trades Council, the best-paid and most conservative section of
organized labor, took to the streets this week.
"Until a couple of years ago, the building
trades were a prehistoric, dinosauric movement," admitted
Mike Hellstrom, a key leader of Tuesday's protest.
Hellstrom is an organizer for Local 79 of
the Laborers International. He's only 32 but has already spent
15 years as a union member. His local represents the lower-paid
workers in the construction industry - asbestos removers, demolition
workers, the hod carriers who supply the mud for bricklayers.
Many of his 7,000 members are Polish and
Latino immigrants and new to the union movement. But they are
rapidly changing the face of an industry that used to be almost
exclusively second and third-generation Italian and Irish.
"I don't care what race or nationality
you are, as long as you have that Laborers union card," Hellstrom
"I use Local 79 as a model of the new
labor movement everywhere I go," McLaughlin said.
And that model, according to Hellstrom and
others who have followed Local 79, is to challenge the status
"My members believe we can change things
in the streets, not just meeting behind closed doors," Hellstrom
said. "You can only arrest so many people, then you have
to deal with our issues."
All this amazing action comes from a labor
movement that has been declared dead so often it should have a
cemetery named after it.
Yet here is McLaughlin, a tall, good-looking,
articulate labor leader. He is the opposite of those dour neanderthals
who once ran things.
McLaughlin is presiding over a resurgence
of labor in this town. He is organizing thousands of limousine
drivers, building coalitions with community organizations.
"We have a big push for affordable day
care, we're helping out the yellow-cab drivers so they can get
a union back," McLaughlin said. "We're becoming more
sophisticated - and more aggressive."
So Hellstrom and his group raise hell in the streets while McLaughlin employs a high-powered public-relations firm. The
carrot and the stick. This reborn labor movement has learned a lot from the bosses who tried to bury it.