Issa's Problems are of His Own Making

23 Jan

Last week, I linked to a hastily re-written post by Queenseyes at Buffalo Rising, decrying the – to his mind – absurd demands of laborers working on Bashar Issa’s Statler Towers that they earn a living wage, plus benefits, and that they be permitted to work in a safe, professional environment.

Queenseyes wrote,

Would you pay $50 per hour to an employee who pushes a broom? What if you were made to do so? That is the labor issue that BSC Group’s Bashar Issa is facing at this moment. Months ago I spoke with Bashar who told me that he was worried that his workers would unionize. This past Saturday he told me that Local 210 had finally succeeded in luring his unskilled workers to vote union. And if you think about it, who wouldn’t vote union if promised a ridiculous amount of money to conduct menial work routines?

Then, after scouring some bulletin boards devoted to discussing development and the built environment all around the world, I found some indication from Manchester that Issa’s BSC Group had a less-than-stellar track record of project completion and project safety. I linked to a BBC article exposing the fact – which hadn’t yet been reported in Buffalo – that a worker on Issa’s Sarah Tower project in Manchester had died when struck in the head by a steel girder last August.

Some of the comments I found criticized Issa’s use of “all peope from east europe with no qualifications”[sic].

Sharon Linstedt has an article in today’s Buffalo News, which uses my posts as a template to find out the rest of the story. Some credit would have been nice, but I pick nits. UPDATE: As is evident from its exhaustively researched content, it’s more of a case of great minds thinking alike than Sharon lifting a story idea from me. My bitchiness was premature.

The law requires, and common sense dictates, that you should provide a safe environment for your workers, and that you should pay them a reasonable wage. Paying workers dirt wages is oftentimes an unfortunate result of having a crap economy that has little opportunity for minimally skilled, but eager workers.

Giving them an unsafe work environment, on the other hand, is an unconscionable breach of the law and is an invitation to what has ultimately happened to Issa – the workers got fed up, and they voted to join the Laborer’s 210.

Now, to turn around the question that Queenseyes asked – a question that I found to be disingenuous and arrogant:

Would you remove asbestos from a work site without the benefit of protective gear for $8.00/hour?

Me, neither.

Yet, that’s evidently exactly what was going on there:

Issa’s company faces U.S. investigations by the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration for practices tied to the $118 million Statler renovation…

…In Buffalo, Issa’s BSC Development Buffalo LLC is accused of trying to block union organizing efforts and of bargaining in bad faith. Workers also allege they were ordered to remove asbestos and lead paint without proper safety gear.

The OSHA investigations target Connex Construction LLC, the construction arm of BSC Development, and C. Tabbi & Co., a local firm hired as a drywall and painting subcontractor.

OSHA documents obtained by The News include seven citations filed against Connex on Dec. 21, most of them in connection with lead paint exposure during remodeling of the 85-year-old building. Connex was cited for violations ranging from failure to test laborers for lead exposure to failure to provide required protective gear and rooms for changing clothing.

OSHA, which had threatened fines of $15,750 for the violations, confirmed that it reached a settlement with Connex on some of the charges as of Friday. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Sworn statements by demolition and construction laborers filed with the NLRB also allege serious safety lapses. The workers’ affidavits contend that they were ordered to remove sections of walls and ceilings, exposing asbestos, without the benefit of protective suits and breathing apparatus, or abatement training.

A group of 28 Statler laborers began their organizing efforts last summer, aiming to boost pay from $8 an hour and gain benefits such as health insurance. The NLRB granted approval for union elections in mid-September, and the workers selected Laborers Local 210 as their union affiliation.

In response, Issa whines,

Issa described the local safety and labor issues as “distractions instigated by Laborers Local 210” to force his company into agreeing to a contract.

Sounds to me like the OSHA complaints and settlements amount to more than a mere “distraction”.

To make matters worse, these $8/hour workers have been fired en masse, and are otherwise being harassed into dealing with the unsafe and unfair status quo.

Over the last few months, BSC/Connex trimmed its employee roster to about a dozen. Complaints filed with the NLRB allege that BSC Group retaliated against union activity by firing about 20 workers and discriminating against others. Two workers said they were dismissed for attending an OSHA seminar on asbestos removal.

Issa said the changing work force numbers have nothing to do with the union vote and contract talks. But he acknowledged that he is frustrated with union calls to boost wages up to $23 an hour plus benefit costs.

“That would be like paying doctor’s rates for laborer’s jobs. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Doctor’s rates?! I’m not exactly a huge union booster, but this sort of behavior by private management puts me decidedly in the workers’ camp. In Britain, Issa has the benefit of EU residency and work laws, so he can hire unskilled labor from places like Poland at wages that a Western European would never consider.

In Manchester, a 47-year-old worker from Poland was crushed by a steel girder that reportedly was being lifted with a makeshift pulley. The worker was employed by Issa’s BS Construction at the Sarah Tower project, a 22-story hotel and residential building.

“The police are considering manslaughter, which is a criminal offense for which an individual could face a custodial sentence,” Bliss continued in her statement.

An unsafe work environment isn’t just stupid, unfair, or a way for Issa to expose himself to labor unrest. It also kills people.

Crains Manchester Business reported on Issa’s problems on January 21st, and contains the following information:

In its last filed accounts, made up to January 31, 2006, BS Construction showed net assets of £1.1m. Its accounts up to November 30, 2007, have not yet been filed.

Bliss said that Issa had needed to improve the management of BSC Group and ensure that the correct health and safety measures were introduced.

“It is generally the case that if there are regulatory problems, there are underlying management issues — and having 19 notices against you in one year should be a cause for concern,” she said.

Issa said that BSC Group has allocated £250,000 as a training budget for staff next year, on and off site, in areas including health and safety and management. “We’ve been co-operative with the HSE and have put structures in place that are more robust, and I am happier with how the business works now.”

Bliss said BSC Group still had work to do to bring health and safety standards up to scratch. She said HSE would keep notices on the company under close review.

(Just a quick question – was the “It is generally the case” language printed in a press release?)

Are we so desperate for something to happen in this town that we’re willing to let our residents be treated unfairly, or be harmed on the job? Did anyone check to see Issa’s record in North Haverbrook, Brockway, or Ogdenville before anointing him the de facto savio(u)r of Buffalo?

14 Responses to “Issa's Problems are of His Own Making”

  1. Howard Goldman January 23, 2008 at 10:31 am #

    We are best served by allowing the NLRB and OSHA to sort out the facts for us before we publically try and sentence any of our workers, local developers, or job creators.

    There may very well be legitimate issues, but without a crystal ball, nobody can accurately prejudge the integrity of a labor complaint when it is filed during a process of union/management public posturing.

    How are we ever going to attract and keep talented developers if we place them in the media stockades every time a labor issue arises? If the legal process ultimately finds fault, then the legal remedy and the inevitable public lashing shall serve as a warning to developers that doing business in Buffalo means doing things right. On the other hand, jumping the gun on these matters, issues as a warning to, and scares away developers and investors – and that serves no positive end.

    Let’s not jump to cruel conclusions like we did with Rocco Termini. We should encourage public discourse that fosters a favorable environment – for both worker safety and successful downtown development. Such an environment would insist that safety, fairness, and due process be afforded to all contributors to downtown redevelopment, workers and capitalists alike.

  2. RJA January 23, 2008 at 11:55 am #

    Without seeing the conditions first hand, it’s difficult to know whether or not it is truly unsafe. Yes someone died on another of his projects, but its a risky job. If they find that Bashar’s company is at fault, then I am sure he will pay the consequences. Life is about doing jobs other people can’t do or don’t want to do or both. You are probably better off choosing a profession that others can’t do rather than the latter. This sense of entitlement has got to end.

    Nobody cares about “us”…and when I say “us”, I mean WNY. If we can’t get new development built here, the rest of the world will just continue to look past us. People from other places will look at the Statler and say “Wow, I wonder what happened here? What a shame. Such a beautiful building. I wonder why these people couldn’t get their act together and preserve this thing?”

    The point being that these people choose these jobs. I don’t think that Mr. Bashar should get a free pass to break the law, but it is typical that as soon as someone steps up in WNY and attempts development, he becomes a target for obstructionists. Labor unions in this case are doing more harm than good.

  3. Derek J. Punaro January 23, 2008 at 12:21 pm #

    Here’s a prime example of how unions could actually help the situation, but instead will kill more attempts at development in Buffalo. You have individuals willing to do the job for $8/hour. These individuals should be provided with the required safety equipment/testing/etc. to complete the job at the market rate. The extra cost of providing a safe working environment is borne by the employer. If the employer is not willing to do so, organizing/joining a union could help achieve that.

    But what’s the first thing we hear when the unions get involved? “Now you have to pay us $23/hour plus benefits.” The act of an employee joining a union is not a value add to the end product, and in the world of economics does not somehow increase the value of that person’s work threefold. It just doesn’t make sense.

  4. Christopher Smith January 23, 2008 at 12:55 pm #

    Howard, how is he being placed in the media stockades? There is a difference between the uncritical analysis of Bashar posted at BR and the reporting of the facts as done by Sharon Lindstedt at TBN. One is useful, and one is not.

    Uncritical analysis is irresponsible in many ways as it lures unethical people to town (not saying Bashar is unethical) because there is a lack of people looking for the facts. Linstedt’s piece is a pretty even handed assessment of the situation and the facts with little opinion put in place. Even Alan’s ruminations on Bashar are from a high meta level, not specifically indicting him in any way.

    Let’s not take that sort of “don’t criticize or people with money will walk” attitude, it makes us look small and needy. We need to have standards and force people to live by them. No one wants to date the girl with no self esteem…except for bullies.

  5. Christopher Smith January 23, 2008 at 12:58 pm #

    “Wow, I wonder what happened here? What a shame. Such a beautiful building. I wonder why these people couldn’t get their act together and preserve this thing?”

    If the story unfolds as it appears to be unfolding, the fact that The Statler isn’t renovated will have little to do with “the people of WNY”.

  6. Howard Goldman January 23, 2008 at 1:50 pm #

    Hi Chris Smith,

    Hey, I like the new look and features that you have been working up for the home page. I hope the old community roster feature is going to survive onto this new format so that visitors can find NewsFromABroad, etc.

    You are correct, I realized after hitting “submit” that I should have further defined media to include the alternative media because that was what I actually had in mind. I was not trying to refer necessarily to Sharon’s story. Apologies go out to our friend at the News.

    I was attempting to cast concern in our own direction. Pundit is a talented and trained advocate. He is an attorney and he is well known for his involvement as a candidate to political office. So, I am concerned that his Bashar bashing may become too successful. I would hate to see the troops fired up and rallied around this particular cause, until the legal process sorts through all of the facts and releases some sort of official determination.

    Then the wheels and the gloves can come off.


  7. Prodigal-Son January 23, 2008 at 10:35 pm #

    Good for you, Pundit, for talking about this story. I am no union lover, and think that while they had their time and place, unions do more harm than good now. But if true, $8/hr to remove asbestos, with no gear, is criminal. I don’t want to pass judgement too quickly, but when Issa says $23/hr is “doctor’s rates” I nearly choked! If doctors made $23/hr then health care costs wouldn’t be rising 10% a year.

  8. Jon Splett January 24, 2008 at 1:01 am #

    I find it amusing Issa is paying these guys $8.00 an hour and complaining about it when the minimum wage in England is £5.05 an hour which works out to about $9.85 over here.

  9. hank kaczmarek January 24, 2008 at 7:23 am #

    I never thought I’d say this but,
    uh, what Derek P said. And Well said.
    Thanks for saving me time/bandwidth.

  10. Timothy Domst January 24, 2008 at 8:48 pm #

    $23 an hour is outrageous for unskilled labor in Buffalo. You have an article just below this about how Charlotte keeps taxes low and the jobs follow, but in this very next article you are demonstrating why businesses don’t come here. You should stop trying to muddy the waters with the safety issue, that’s what inspectors are for, we have plenty of safety laws that will be enforced.

  11. secret March 21, 2008 at 5:05 pm #

    i waork at this company at the moment in Manchester ,it is dangerouse on site and people who manage it are crazy i think.

    if there is anything you want to know drop me a line.


  12. Stevie G April 11, 2008 at 7:10 pm #

    Make your mind up Secret, Tom

    Really Tom?? (or secret)(regards March 21st 2008) I too work for this company in Manchester. Never heard your name? Oops…oh yeah of course your trying to hide behind a pointless name. Fuck sake, have some gutts!!

    Whats more dangerous is your spelling 😉


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