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Immigrant Construction Workers Fight Back Against Exploitation

On March 10, two workers at a construction site in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, were straddling a steel beam 15 feet in the air while cutting one of its edges when the beam fell to the ground, sending the workers plunging to the first floor alongside it.

A laborer working at a construction site across the street witnessed the accident from the fourth-floor window he was working beside, and called in distress to the superintendent, who filmed the immediate aftermath: A steel beam lay across the construction site debris like a toppled obelisk to the side of the body of a man splay-legged on the ground with workers in yellow vests, paramedics and firefighters gathered around him.

Both workers were transported to Bellevue hospital by NYPD where, Laborers’ Local Union 79—a New York City–based union that has been a vocal supporter of the rights of immigrant workers—believes, the second worker was treated for two broken legs—and where the man who was seen in the video still remains, over two months later, in a coma.

A review by The Nation of nine Environmental Control Board (ECB) violations and two Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports related to the incident reveals an egregious lack of safety standards and identifies the man who is now in a coma as Maximo Parra, an immigrant construction worker from Ecuador.

Parra’s coworkers, the majority of whom also immigrated from Latin America, say that accidents like this are all too common in the nonunion demolition industry, along with the many exploitative practices they are subjected to on the job.

With roughly a dozen core members, and a rotating cadre of up to 70 additional members on the periphery, these immigrant demolition workers have organized under the name Los Demolicións—“the Demolitionists”—to fight back against the perpetrators of their exploitation, Alba Services , the Manhattan-based construction company charged with managing demolition at their worksite, and to draw attention to the developers who employ the company.

“There’s a few companies out there that are operating in the nonunion sector,” said Chaz Rynkiewicz, vice president and director of organizing for Local 79. “Alba, currently, is the biggest exploiter of workers in the demolition industry in New York City. ”

The majority of Los Demolicionistas have worked out of Alba Services’ main site, the Terminal Warehouse Project—an ambitious renovation of a historic building in the West Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

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