By DAVID FIRESTONE
July 8, 1998 New York Times
-- It's not very surprising, in retrospect, that it was the hod
carriers, the floor sweepers, the stackers of bricks and scaffolding
who were at the heart of last week's unruly labor rally in midtown
There were plenty of skilled tradesmen blocking
streets and stirring up the air to protest the Metropolitan Transportation
Authority's use of a nonunion contractor, as any bruised police
officer can attest, but the organizers, the ones who shoved and
shouted the hardest, were laborers.
They are the ones most vulnerable to swings
in the economy and the encroachment of nonunion contractors, the
first to be laid off a job when a budget gets cut.
Mike Hellstrom, stocky and loud and typical
of a new defiance among young labor leaders, said it was no coincidence
that his union was at the vortex of the rally, just as it has
been trying for two years to energize the other building trades.
"A carpenter needs to be able to use
a screw gun and read plans and make cuts with sheet rock knives,"
said Hellstrom, assistant organizing director of Local 79 of the
Construction and Building Laborers Union and one of a handful
of people who brought together 40,000 workers for the protest.
"But anybody can be a laborer. Anybody. Anybody can stack
brick and shovel mortar and sand and sweep brooms and run pumps
and hump stuff around on a job site. So we're not going to be
complacent like some of the others."
Hellstrom and his colleagues have brought
what they call a "warrior mentality" to the 7,500 members
of Local 79, making it one of the most visible unions in New York
over the last two years.
Having grown sick of the corruption that
long plagued the union, and wary of deals with politicians, the
new leaders have created a new arena on the streets outside nonunion
job sites, holding mass lunchtime rallies where thousands of members
blow pink plastic whistles and deliberately make annoyances of
Most prominently, the local borrowed an idea
from some Chicago unions and bought a pair of 15-foot rat balloons
for about $4,000 each. Hellstrom carries them around in the back
of his pickup truck and happily inflates them at a moment's notice
when a contractor uses nonunion labor on a building site. The
rats attract cameras, the whistles attract passers-by, and the
general effect brings a good deal of attention to contractors
who often prefer to operate quietly.
"The idea is to create a commotion,"
said Hellstrom, 32, grinning at the thought of all the editorials
that decried the lawlessness of the midtown rally. "The thing
about in-your-face-type organizing and militancy is, you're definitely
going to get your point across faster and you're going to be heard
faster. Our issues have been ignored for a long time, so if shutting
down the city streets got us the attention that we got over this
cause, then so be it."
To some degree, it has worked. The union's
organizing has brought 1,500 previously nonunionized demolition
workers into the local, and the constant rallies persuaded a contractor
at 80 John Street to sign with the union. The state Labor Department
has begun investigating the practices of Roy Kay Inc., the nonunion
contractor that was the target of the midtown rally, based on
information provided by union officials.
The other building trades, which hung back
from the Laborers' more aggressive tactics for years, are starting
to join in.
Edward Malloy, president of the Building
and Construction Trades Council, which represents 100,000 construction
workers, said that Local 79 had done a "tremendous job"
re energizing the trades, and that Hellstrom was one of a new
breed of aggressive young organizers turning up the heat.
Fred Kotler, who has taught Hellstrom in
union organizing classes at the Construction Industry Program
of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations
in Manhattan, said Hellstrom was one of the most instinctive organizers
he had known.
"He's tough and street smart, and he
represents a new generation of people who are now in positions
of union responsibility, infusing a lot of energy into the building
trades," said Kotler, associate director of the program.
Hellstrom, the grandson of Swedish immigrants,
dropped out of high school in the 11th grade to join the union,
having been taken to the union hall by his father -- a laborer
even now -- at age 16.
Like a lot of laborers, he became "addicted to the good money," as he put it, and never left, though he eventually got his equivalency diploma. He worked on scores of construction sites over the years, eventually
becoming a labor foreman, and after the federal
government cleaned up and reorganized the local in 1996, he moved
He's not sure where the militant streak came
from, although he suspects he picked it up reading about the early
days of the labor movement in America and the writings of the
organizer Saul Alinsky.
By now, he said, even his 3-year-old daughter,
Stephanie, sings union chants around the two-bedroom apartment
he and his wife, Angela, rent in Howard Beach, Queens, a few blocks
from where he grew up. He just hopes his daughter doesn't grow
up to be quite as rebellious as her dad.
Copyright 1998 The New York Times
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company