San Francisco – It promised to be a nice warm day.
At 7:30 a.m., the men, mostly of Mexican descent, or possibly from other places in Central America, were milling around, waiting to be picked up by vehicles ranging from old banged up pickup trucks, to the most modern of roofing trucks with equipment costing five or six figures.
Sal Botello, the organizer for Roofers Local 40, had grabbed a cup of coffee from inside City Lunch (officially, City Café) and was chatting with one of the men. Some will talk to him readily, and others avoid him, afraid that the underground contractors who come around looking for bodies might avoid them for fear of the union. This man, with five years experience as a roofer, was a talker. They chatted away in Spanish.
The men can expect to work from dawn to dusk, 12 or more hours, for $60 to more than $100 if they have experience. There are no benefits, no workman‚s compensation. Payment is in cash, which is occasionally not forthcoming. Not much he can do, Sal added, even if they come to him later. There are no records. These men could be undocumented, but Sal never asks. His reason is the same as that of cops and medical personnel, who also never ask – the fear that the men will avoid contact. Cops need to be able to talk to everyone so they can’t risk alienating any group by seeming to be an arm of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Medical personnel want people to come to them if they have serious medical conditions. They cannot seem to be interrogators. There is no need to know patients’ immigration status to treat them.
It’s not an easy task organizing these men. The shops, when they can be located, are often owned by folks who see only profit, are from vastly different cultures, and simply do not see these individuals as human beings. Hiring them is no more important than buying a ladder. It‚s something they have to do.
City Lunch is located at the southern corner of Van Dyke Avenue and Ingalls Street in the bleak industrial area known as the Bayview District. Around the corner, cash changes hands at Bayview Roofing Supply for the needed materials. Some of the men loading trucks in front of the supplier objected to being photographed. Further down Van Dyke were a number of semi-permanently parked cars and vans where many of the men drink beer after work, and sleep at night. Piles of uncollected garbage are present.
Many of these men, according to Sal, send the greater part of their incomes to Mexico to support their families. They can expect to make three times what is possible at home if there is work to be found in the first place. They are mostly family men doing what they can for their families.
Death finds Miguel Moncada Ortiz
Known to everyone as “Carlos,” Miguel Moncada Ortiz, 32, fell from a roof on July 26, 2000 in the early morning hours. He had no safety harness (none was supplied – he used a rope which he took off after “testing” the roof), no insurance, and a boss who simply didn’t care. Christie Binn Chung, the owner of 101 Roofing, the company for which Carlos worked, said to Cal/OSHA investigators when told that safety was a priority, “money first, safety second.” Chung was indicted and spent a year in jail (for more details of Carlos’s death, see “Blue Collar Crime” by Adam Clay Thompson of the Bay Guardian. The story was reprinted in Organized Labor and can be found on-line at Blue Collar Crime. Details of the death were drawn from that article.).
101 Roofing is now called GRC Roofing. Same location, same people, same trucks, “different owner,” Sal said with an ironic smile. This is one of the larger underground roofers. They’re not as big as before, according to Steve Tucker, business manager of Local 40, since they no longer bid on city contracts (a scandal exposed at the time Carlos died). That would bring unwanted attention. These days, GRC only does residential work. At the time of the death of Carlos, 101 Roofing was reporting an income of $1.2 million, but prosecutors, also indicting Chung on tax fraud, said it was more like $4.3 million.
GRC Roofing is around the other corner from City Lunch on Wallace Avenue.
Steve said that there are 30 to 50 underground roofing companies in the area. That, he concedes, is a guess. There may be many more. The danger is not only the possibility of death. Roofing is one of the most dangerous jobs in construction. Dozens of roofers in the area are injured every year, and with no workers compensation, emergency room treatment is their only hope. There is no recourse for those who suffer permanent injury. The prosecution of Chung was the exception rather than the rule. His notorious behavior forced the hands of the authorities.
Initially, some underground roofers were scared by the imprisonment of one of their own, and cleaned up their act to some extent, but it didn’t take long for old practices to return. If you work non-union, you will be underpaid. Compare $100 a day for a 12 hour shift with just under $40 an hour, including benefits, and overtime after eight, that a union worker can earn. And you are taking your life in your hands without insurance for your family or yourself. The equation for these men, however, is that the needs of their impoverished families take precedence over their own safety
A homeowner hiring one of these underground contractors also faces a danger. Few carry liability insurance, and safety precautions remain a joke (remember also, that insurance companies insist on inspections and permits). Some techniques in roofing, such as the ‘Modified Roof System,’ use an open flame torch, and on several occasions, this technique has caused the burning down of someone’s house, or even a neighbor’s house. Homeowners should be wary, Steve warns. Not paying attention to safety can be dangerous for people passing by as well as the residents of buildings. Besides the potential human costs, lawsuits can be expensive even when you “win.”
Sal came from Mexico at age 15. He worked non-union for many years. For the last 17 years he has been a union roofer, and for the last three of those years, he has been an organizer for Local 40. He enjoys listening to Spanish broadcasting as he drives from one location to another. He and Steve are responsible for organizing three shops, no mean accomplishment in an era of hostility to unions by various government entities. It is an even greater accomplishment if one considers that the employers, a good many from Asia, have no tradition of labor rights, and the workers are governed by fear of retaliation and the plight of their families.
At 51, Sal Botello has no illusions that organizing is easy. But he notes that 85% of Local 40 is Spanish speaking, so it can be done. There’s a lot to be done, he indicated, as he drove slowly up and down the seedy blocks surrounding City Lunch, pointing out which shops were unionized and which were not. Many of the latter had no business signs. He knows about these shops because he spends a lot of time in the area talking to a lot of people. The technique he uses is more than just focusing on one shop at a time, but involves understanding a whole, and largely invisible, sub-culture that exists in a world that is easily distracted.
Sal has a lot to teach other union organizers.
(Yves Barbero is a former member of Local 8, International Union of Elevator Constructors, and present member of the National Writers Union, UAW, AFL-CIO. He proudly maintains the website of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council at www.sfbctc.org. He is a computer consultant and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org