This post continues our symposium on carceral labor with Inquest.
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Starting in the spring of 2021, the National Employment Law Project teamed up with New York’s Construction & General Building Laborers’ Local 79 in their campaign to challenge self-identified “body shops.” In the following interview, I discuss the campaign with Bernard Callegari, a formerly incarcerated Local 79 rank-and-file member and now chief of staff of the Laborers’ Eastern Region.
Body shops are unregulated labor broker companies that target New Yorkers under court supervision for underpaid and dangerous construction work. Such workers are made desperate by conditions of release that regularly include “seeking and/or maintaining employment,” driving them to accept bad pay and dangerous working conditions. The actors may have different names, but this system of post-release work placement is not new and has long depended on grossly overstating the “anti-recidivist” or “rehabilitative” qualities of any work, no matter how underpaid or dangerous—thereby enjoying a veneer of progressive virtue while exploiting workers. In the context of New York, body shops have become integral to how the criminal legal system reproduces racial hierarchy, degrading the collective working power of all workers by targeting Black and Latinx workers.
Concerned with how court-supervised workers were both being exploited and being leveraged by the real estate development industry against unionized workers, Laborers’ Local 79 organized its Real Reentry campaign to pass city- and state-level bills to bring transparency and accountability to what is often an opaque dynamic between criminal punishment and the labor market. These victories have included legislation requiring labor brokers to maintain insurance for workers’ compensation, disability, and unemployment. The new legislation also requires the employers to provide adequate notice to workers, in the workers’ primary language, regarding each new assignment and the employer’s obligations, including work hours, benefits, and pay. More must be done, but campaigns such as the Laborers’ show us the beginnings of what can be achieved when unions and worker centers organize to challenge criminal punishment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Could you start us out by explaining how body shops affect workers in the construction industry?
The term “body shop” was coined by developers here in New York City. Typically, a body shop brokers a laborer to a construction site for $40–45 an hour, of which the worker themselves will make $15–17 an hour and the body shop keeps the rest.
Body shops perpetuate a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions, the only way they compete in the market. You’re constantly made to feel like you’re almost doing a good job. If you would just try a little harder, the boss would be satisfied. Which is intentional. I remember one of my supers when I worked non-union disclosing to me that he was looking to make me a foreman, so he was trying to teach me that it was important to keep the worker down. You have to get a worker to always feel like they’re underperforming. That was how I always felt working as a laborer, until I got into the union. And then finally it was a little different because I had some protection.
Being a laborer is the deadliest job in New York City: the latest data documents over one work-related death per month. What kind of protections distinguish unionized work?
On union sites there’s a shop steward who can intervene, and you know that you have the backing of the union, so if something happens where you get let go from that job, it won’t be the end. There will be another job opportunity. Because you’re collectively bargained for by the union, and there’s a host of companies they work with.
Worker safety is treated very differently on union and non-union sites. For example, before I was in the union, there was a company I was working for a lot doing demolition and excavation work. One day we were demolishing a building that was adjacent to an open Rite Aid, and the block wall fell into the wall of the open drugstore. If it had fallen through that wall, it could have fallen on customers. And my boss told me to run up the wall in order to put a rope around the top so that the machine could pull it back. I did it, because I felt like I needed to be that willing to put my safety at risk, just to keep my job. It wasn’t enough to just be someone who worked hard—I had to show that I was willing to go above and beyond. And I don’t just mean working late or working harder, but literally be willing to put my own safety at risk. I’ve never been in unsafe situations like that since I’ve been in the union. I’ve never felt compelled to put myself in harm’s way, or felt like my safety was second to a project.
I think choices about those kinds of risks land differently for people who have been incarcerated. At a panel I attended recently about reentry, one of the panelists talked about how some of his best workers have been formerly incarcerated people—how they’re such a grateful workforce. And at first hearing that you kind of want to applaud. But afterward I thought, Is this why we only have to pay people $15 an hour, because they’re so grateful to have a job at all that they’ll do it for less? It’s a fine line between someone being grateful for what they have, and someone not feeling worthy of getting better. That’s, I think, the kryptonite of the school-to-prison-to-work pipeline, how it manufactures a lack of self-worth, that it creates this workforce of people who will work for anything, and even put themselves in danger at work, just because they’re glad to have a job at all.
That’s a crucial point that the Local 79 campaign against body shops helped bring attention to, how saying that formerly incarcerated workers are grateful is really another way of saying that they’re financially desperate—they’ve been put into financial crisis by incarceration—and these conditions weaken collective worker power. What are some of the factors that make formerly incarcerated workers particularly vulnerable to exploitation by body shops?
From personal experience, I can say that I always knew that I could probably get a job in the construction industry, even though I had a record, because it’s one of the few industries that doesn’t run background checks. So there’s that, the simple fact that you can get a construction job.
This is exacerbated by the fact that people with records often wind up going to one of these organizations that receive funding from the state or federal government to help people find employment. And in our research, the union found that these organizations are often the ones that are pushing people into low-paying body shop jobs. It’s like you’re stuck on a ride you can’t get off. People who’ve been incarcerated have been conditioned to work for 35 or 45 cents an hour—and you’re taught to believe that you don’t even deserve that. So if you’ve just been working for 45 cents an hour, you are made to feel as though, Who are you to say you don’t want to work for $15?
On top of that, you’ve got your parole requirements, and that means you almost don’t care about the pay because if you don’t get a job, and you don’t keep your job, you’re going to be in violation and potentially sent back to jail. It’s important to point out how absurd parole requirements often are. Because they will insist on the one hand that you maintain employment, but then they will also stipulate a curfew. Construction jobs often start at 5:00 a.m., but your curfew might say you have to be indoors between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. One of the union’s victories was to get a law passed in the state of New York that allows workers to be outside during their curfew for purposes of employment. But the fact that we even needed that law—just to say that it’s OK to keep the job that you have to keep in order to not go back to prison—shows you that the system doesn’t really care that these are people’s lives, that people are being forced to work under these impossible conditions.
We’ve had stories of companies unhappy with a worker and literally contacting that person’s parole officer to report that they’re being insubordinate or showing up late, or some other lie, just to get the person in trouble. Those stories resonate throughout the jobsites. Other parolees hear those stories, that’s part of the coercion. The body shops use the parole system to discipline their workers.
So how did your union get involved in the struggle against the body shops? How did the organization come to be committed to this belief in organizing formerly incarcerated workers?
Because of my own experience, and my position in the union, along with many other leaders in the union’s experience with incarceration, we knew it was our time to do something about it. In some ways the conditions with City Hall were right, especially coming off the 2020 uprisings. I am so grateful that I work for the Laborers’ and that our mission statement is explicit that our aim is to organize every worker within our craft jurisdiction. We don’t base that on anything other than the fact that you’re doing work that falls within our jurisdiction. That includes formerly incarcerated workers, as well as undocumented workers—everyone who is working under coercion, under pressure, under fear.
Set against our mission for dignified and safe labor, even the language of “body shops” is upsetting—it shows the lack of respect they have for this workforce. Like they’re literally just selling bodies to construction companies. We knew that it was our obligation to stand in the gap for these workers. We are these workers. We use our political influence and our active membership to be successful and we were. We started the campaign against the body shops and we were successful. With the help of the National Employment Law Project and a couple of other community partners, we got the New York City Council to pass the “body shop” bill in nine months. The law forces these unlicensed labor brokers out of the shadows. They can no longer just tell workers that they have to go to a different job with only two hours’ notice, or not tell them who they are working for. They now have to disclose which developers are using them. Our motto was that if you’re going to use exploitable labor to build one of the most famous skylines in the world, we’re going to make you famous for that. So now if a developer is using one of these body shops, we have to be notified. And then we get to let everybody else know. And I will say that, because of that, we’ve suddenly had a lot of developers asking: Can Local 79 help us to ensure that our development is done responsibly?
Can you remember any examples of needing to build solidarity between formerly incarcerated workers and workers who had never been? And undocumented workers with both of those camps? How do you overcome those challenges?
There were times in our strategy sessions where we talked through the idea that some of our members might not like the idea that we’re using our resources to fight for people who have criminal records. That being said, because of the diverse membership that we have, I think that more than other trade unions, we have a higher percentage of people who can understand what it means to have made a mistake.
Our opposition has tried hard to interrupt our solidarity by putting out the message that it’s the Latin community versus the African American community versus the white community. We are set on creating worker power, and the predominantly white real estate development industry tries to use community fault lines against labor all the time.
I think something that has really helped us avoid that trap is that the Laborers’ were the last union in the construction industry that was formed. We were formed by the people who weren’t allowed in the other unions. And that has translated into a sense that we don’t just allow marginalized people into our union, we seek them out. Because we believe that our strength lies in our diversity. If you go to one of our training sessions on any given day, you’ll most likely see 70 to 80 percent of our members are Black and brown.
What do you see for the future? What changes do you think formerly incarcerated workers most urgently need? What would support them in building worker power?
There needs to be something in place for making sure that when incarcerated people come home, they’re able to get copies of all the documents they need: a driver’s license or a state identification card, a copy of their birth certificate, a social security card, all of those things that you will be asked for immediately when you try to get a job, and which many incarcerated folks no longer have and often have no easy way of getting.
All incarcerated people should be able to use their time while incarcerated to pursue education, including getting a GED if they don’t have a high school diploma. They should have access to things like Pathways to Apprenticeship while they’re in prison, or as part of a prerelease program, so that when they get out they don’t fall into the lie that they’re only worth a certain type of job. That they have a right to expect a middle-class income and a career.
I mean, the ideal would be to change the whole system and just throw it away! But I think some amendments, like I just mentioned, would help a lot of people.
We created programs like Pathways to Apprenticeship and Real Reentry, both of which focus on reaching out to communities of people impacted by incarceration, and giving them the opportunity to get placed in a career-path job and a path to union membership. Pathways to Apprenticeship, for example, is a state certified, pre-apprenticeship program with direct entry status, which means that anyone who completes the five-week training course is granted direct access into one of the apprenticeship programs for the building trades. The classes always take place in neighborhoods that are underserved. Sometimes they’re done in cooperation with a development that is planned for that neighborhood, where we get the developer to agree to a certain amount of local hire, and use the classes as a way to get locals into the unions and onto those jobs. We’ve got a lot of exciting partnerships through Pathways to Apprenticeship so that when people finish they have ways to move into a diverse range of union jobs.
Tax dollars and subsidies given to developers should be attached to requirements that a certain percentage of folks they hire have to be formerly incarcerated, or from underserved communities, people who traditionally have been locked out of these opportunities. That should also be tied to wage and benefit requirements. This money from taxpayers should be used to help communities heal, and help people transition back into society.
And I’m going to say this, even though it might be controversial, but you cannot give somebody a $15 an hour job in New York City and expect them not to try to find another way to subsidize their income. The same way you can’t expect someone in a poverty- or war-ravaged country to not try to flee to find somewhere safe where they can support their family. It is our nature to survive, and to provide for our families. People are going to do it the only way they know how unless we give them a new way. A way that has dignity, a way that has respect, and a way that provides a real wage.