After his second stint in prison — two years on possession of drugs with intent to sell — Andre Chesson needed a job.
It had been around a decade since Mr. Chesson had blown an opportunity with Local 79, New York’s biggest laborers’ union. But his parole officer had a suggestion for how to get a second chance in the field — enrolling at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a nonprofit that helps ex-convicts join the work force.
CEO connected Mr. Chesson to Trade Off Construction Services, a nonunion firm. He was taken aback by the offer he received: $15 an hour and no benefits. Credentialed workers of Local 79, called journeymen, can make up to $69 an hour with benefits.
“I really had to lower my standards,” Mr. Chesson said.
After a few months, he got a raise. Mr. Chesson, now 38, said he still doesn’t receive health insurance or vacation pay, but he’s proud to earn $17.50 an hour. “What I did in six months at Trade Off — I’m with people, I know people, it took them three years. I’m not trying to sit here cocky, but I worked for that.”
Whether Mr. Chesson has been supported or exploited is at the center of a brewing fight between nonprofits like CEO, nonunion firms and major developers against New York’s influential but embattled construction unions. At stake is the future of an industry worth $84 billion.
Re-entry nonprofits like CEO, which find jobs for people coming out of prison, have in recent years helped fuel the rise of nonunion companies like Trade Off. These companies provide construction workers who do clean up and heavy lifting for major building projects around the city.
CEO would consider Mr. Chesson a success story. By adjusting his expectations and embracing work, Mr. Chesson went from a repeat offender with a risk of recidivism to a law-abiding member of society with a steady job.
But union officials see something darker.
“You’re cutting pay, cutting benefits, and you’re using an easily exploitable model — which is the re-entry population — to do it,” said Chaz Rynkiewicz, director of organizing for Local 79.
Unions have reason to be concerned. Membership in the Building and Construction Trades Council, a union umbrella group, has slid from around 250,000 in New York City in the 1980s to about 100,000 today.
After controlling the industry for decades, unions now receive only 20 percent of permits for new private construction and renovation jobs in the city, according to Brian Sampson, president of the New York chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, a nonunion trade association.
Representatives of the building trades — carpenters, bricklayers and plumbers, among other workers — counter these figures by saying their members are still employed on the largest public projects and private developments.
The conflict has been playing out in the ongoing Hudson Yards project, often described as the biggest private development in the city since Rockefeller Center. The group behind it, Related Companies, traditionally used union workers almost exclusively. It’s just the kind of project the building trades depends on.
Initially, unions supplied nearly all the construction workers for Hudson Yards. But a feud arose between late 2017 and early 2018, when Related accused the building trades of violating labor agreements, while Local 79 and other unions learned that Related would be expanding its use of nonunion firms like Trade Off.
Trade Off is the “poster child of exploitation,” said Mike Hellstrom, president of the Mason Tenders District Council, which oversees Local 79. In 2017 and 2018, a Local 79 campaign to organize workers at Trade Off helped bring to light allegations of sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions.
This development helped to spur on the building trades’ fiery protests against Related last year. During one rally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke glowingly of the building trades and workers chanted, “We just punched Related in the face.”
The protests stopped in March of this year. Construction has continued mainly at a single building on the site, 50 Hudson Yards. Trade Off and Local 79 are waiting for Related to announce who will get work in the next phase of building. Joanna Rose, an executive vice president at Related, declined to comment on when that announcement would likely occur.
Ron Lattanzio, Trade Off’s president, did not comment on the allegations against his company. Instead, he pointed to a suit Trade Off filed against Local 79, which claims that the union is conspiring to put his company out of business. Mr. Lattanzio said his company lowers construction costs, increases opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, and provides them “a great standard of living.”
Some Trade Off workers agree. Jose Bonilla, 47, spent 10 years in federal prison after being convicted of dealing heroin. Today, he’s one of four field supervisors working at Trade Off.
Mr. Bonilla said he makes around $82,000 a year and gets two weeks vacation. He recently bought a five-bedroom house in Poughkeepsie for his large and growing family.
But interviews with 15 current and former workers — all of them previously incarcerated — at Trade Off and two other large nonunion laborer providers, Spacious Living Group and Construction Staffing Solutions, revealed that many workers struggle financially.
They make too much money to receive food stamps but feel the loss of food stamps keenly. They cannot afford health care. They ration nights out.
To make ends meet in New York, they work as much overtime as possible and seek off-the-books side gigs. Nine people — several with experience at each of the three companies — stated that some of their colleagues on the average work site have dealt drugs to supplement their income.
Tamir Rosenblum, the general counsel of the Mason Tenders, said nonprofits that work with companies like Trade Off put “the veneer of good works on a system of exploitation.”
But officials at CEO, which makes around 1,000 job placements for formerly incarcerated New Yorkers each year, see value in the nonunion construction jobs they find for their clients.
“Half the people at CEO have never worked before,” said Sam Schaeffer, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer. “When they’re being sent here, it’s principally because there’s a need for immediate income.”
In 2016, CEO named Trade Off its employer of the year. Mr. Lattanzio said Trade Off struggled to retain workers until it started working with CEO.
“Those people became incredibly reliable, showed up and were looking forward to actually having the ability to change their lives,” he said.
The CEO and Trade Off partnership represents a broader trend. Officials at the Fortune Society and the Osborne Association, two other large nonprofits that do re-entry employment in New York, said that in recent years they, too, began to find more laborer openings for formerly incarcerated people. According to data provided by each nonprofit, nonunion firms account for roughly 95 percent of placements they make in construction.
The appeal comes partly from accessibility. While new hires at Trade Off can start in a matter of days, Local 79 opens its membership rolls only once or twice a year. Available slots get taken in around two minutes.
Unions are aware of the problem. To help disadvantaged New Yorkers join the building trades, members of Local 79 created an organization called Pathways 2 Apprenticeship, commonly known as P2A, in 2013. Since then, 226 people have joined construction unions through the program.
By contrast, CEO and Fortune together make over 300 placements in nonunion construction every year.
Conventional re-entry nonprofits make a much wider impact than P2A, but studies of their effect on employment have produced a mixed record. A recent government report found that 36 percent of those enrolled in CEO, Fortune, and Osborne remained in some kind of employment after three years, which was 11 percent higher than a control group.
P2A, the Local 79-affiliated program, puts fewer people to work but seems to yield longer-lasting employment: 80 percent of those who joined the union through P2A remain members today, said Lavon Chambers, the program’s director.
Michael Cleland, 40, who spent over 13 years in prison on an armed robbery charge, is now one of P2A’s most dedicated spokesmen.
After being released in January 2015, Mr. Cleland lived in a halfway house. To spend time together while staying warm, he and his children would wander around Macy’s.
“Give me a chance,” he’d say. “I’ll get on my feet soon.”
P2A at the time was a tiny and informal group, so Mr. Cleland had to navigate, on his own, Local 79’s complicated and lengthy application process. He managed to join that fall.
It was only then that he learned about P2A. Since 2016, he’s worked as a peer mentor, visiting parole offices across New York to explain what P2A does and providing guidance to enrollees in the program.
Last year, Mr. Cleland took his daughter out to dinner at a restaurant near Macy’s. They remembered what it was like when he got out of prison, back when Mr. Cleland seemed like “a question mark,” he said.
“‘You kept your word,’” Mr. Cleland recalled his daughter saying to him.
These days, Mr. Cleland plans for the future. He thinks about buying real estate, opening a seafood restaurant in Canarsie, taking vacations, retiring with a pension. The most valuable thing he’s attained since joining the union, he says, is a state of mind: “Something to work toward every day.”