At a July 19 Providence City Council hearing, local progressive activists and local construction unions clashed. Chants and shouts from the building trade unions dominated a chamber packed with critics of the proposed Hope Point Tower construction on vacant I-195 land. Hand-scrawled signs of local activists, most calling for affordable housing, vied for space with posters printed by the Laborers’ International Union (LiUNA). Construction workers wore high-visibility green shirts and white hard hats, holding signs printed by the Union: “Support the Fane Tower.”
The fight wasn’t confined to the hearing floor: up in the balcony, individual tensions boiled over. In one testy exchange, a local activist and Brown University junior, “NO NEW TOWER” sign in hand, confronted one of the many construction workers in attendance. The activist argued that Providence should not subsidize luxury housing; the construction worker defended development as a job source, and wondered aloud whether any construction at all might win activist support. As Norbert Oliveira, representing the local International Union of Painters and Allied Traders (IUPAT), told the College Hill Independent, “When we do a job, we finish, and we need another one.” A project like the Hope Point Tower, the developer and unions have claimed, would provide over a thousand construction jobs.
Arguments like these are emblematic of a larger division between the state’s building trade unions and its progressive activists. Hope Point (better known as Fane) Tower is one of many recent ‘mega-developments’ to split two factions which both claim to fight for the working people of Rhode Island. Before the Fane fights, the building trades clashed with a variety of progressive (and less progressive) groups opposed to new developments. Disputes centered on a proposed fracked-gas power plant in Burrillville and (failed) plans to construct a PawSox baseball stadium in Pawtucket. In each debate, the same conflict appeared to repeat: leftists’ broader foes—corporate subsidies, tax breaks for luxury housing, investments in fossil fuel infrastructure—were pitted against trade unions’ immediate need for construction jobs.
In many ways, progressives and labor unions make unnatural enemies. Each group fights for an empowered working class with living wages, comprehensive benefits, and jobs with dignity. And their political relationship is often symbiotic, for progressives regularly rely upon union support. But just as a broad leftist coalition cannot exist without labor unions, labor unions’ very existence often hinges on legal protections under attack by the American right. “The most progressive construction trade unions,” warned leading labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein in an interview with the Indy, “have come to realize that going it alone, they’re going to be destroyed.”
However, as Lichtenstein told the Indy, these conflicts between the left and construction trade unions in Rhode Island are not new developments either: “That’s been going on for many decades.” At the same time, forging a path forward in Rhode Island means looking towards the innovative coalition-building in recent labor movements across the country, as well as considering the compatibility of progressive policy interests and trade union necessities. But a coalition between the two groups shouting each other down at City Council hearing is possible, and from this unity might arise a way out of the counterproductive divide between Rhode Island’s construction unions and its progressive activists.
Construction unions, Michael F. Sabitoni explained to the Indy, are “practical organizations.” Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council and business manager of the Laborers’ Local Union 271, leads many pro-development fights, writing op-eds in the Providence Journal, speaking at public hearings, and meeting with state legislators. (In fact, state representatives from the town of Burrillville left Sabitoni’s office just before his interview with the Indy.) The loss of the PawSox, which recently announced plans to move to Massachusetts, seems to have gotten under Sabitoni’s skin. Before our interview, he looked around his office and wondered aloud whether it was time to take down his office’s locker of PawSox paraphernalia—multiple jerseys, a bat, and a stack of team schedules.
Sabitoni is generally unfazed by the frequent opposition he faces from activists opposed to new projects; his members’ needs remain at the core of his organization’s policy demands. Construction work is dependent on development within the local economy, and, in turn, any lulls have direct and sometimes dire consequences. At that July Council hearing, IUPAT’s Oliveira put the reality plainly: “Our work is not steady.” IUPAT workers are paid by the hour, and if no job is available after a project finishes, they’re sometimes forced to collect unemployment insurance. In other words, Oliveira says, “we need another job to put my guys back to work.” But, he said, referring to projects like downtown hotels and construction on college campuses, “Right now, all my guys are working.”
This staunch commitment to development often pits construction unions directly against local progressives. Nate Carpenter, state coordinator of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, criticized the Fane Tower, telling the Indy that he could not support “luxury homes in low-income areas.” Aaron Regunberg, former state representative and one of the leading voices of the progressive movement in Rhode Island, wrote in an email to the Indy, “you cannot be progressive if you don’t fully support the labor movement.” At the same time, he said, “we cannot afford to build massive new fossil fuel power plants if we're going to be able to keep this planet livable.”
Sabitoni understands the opposition, but he remains unconvinced. “Whatever it is,” he says, “there’s always a group that’s against. As the Building Trades, we’re always out to support it.” He says some progressive groups are simply “naysayers.” Activists, he argues, put political values before practical ideas, and at the end of the day, working people lose job opportunities.
The risks of this division are serious, for a fractured American left has historically enabled the rise of a decidedly right-wing political majority. Through the 1950s, the Democratic party enjoyed a broad coalition of labor support, but that unity collapsed in the 1960s. Southern Democrats first broke from the party during the Civil Rights Movement. Fierce debate over the Vietnam War reawakened lingering fears of communism, and protests over the ongoing war divided the party even more deeply. Republicans savvily seized onto fractured pieces of the former Democratic coalition, winning broad support from formerly liberal union groups. By the end of the 1960s, divergent ideologies, demands, and backgrounds within the Democratic party led to increased tensions. Democrats lost their political majority, and some clashes between former allies turned violent.
Perhaps the clearest embodiment of this political schism came in New York City during an ugly conflict known as the Hard Hat Riots, which also marked the methods by which Republican leadership drew upon antagonism between Democratic factions in order to solidify working-class support.
On the morning of May 8, 1970, hundreds of students gathered in downtown Manhattan to protest the ongoing war in Vietnam and mourn the murder of four anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University earlier that week. All proceeded peacefully until hundreds of local construction workers violently stormed the protest. Clad in work gear—hard hats, overalls, steel-toed boots, belts with pliers and metal tools—the men burst into the crowd and attacked the ‘unpatriotic’ students, beating them with helmets and tools. The New York Times reported that workers sought those with the longest hair, proposing to “kill the Commie bastards,” and shouting “[Mayor] Lindsay’s a red!”
As the construction workers beat the students, the Police Department looked on. The workers stormed City Hall, raising flags lowered in honor of the Kent State victims. Chants shifted to “USA, love it or leave it!” as the counterprotest became a larger statement of union support for the war. Over the next week, a series of pro-war, anti-Lindsay railles called for the impeachment of their ‘traitor’ mayor and rallied en masse in support of Nixon and his war. Involved in all of these rallies, and directly responsible for the violent counter-protest on the March 8, was Peter Brennan, leader of New York’s Building and Construction Trades Council.
Rather than facing condemnation for the violent conflict, Brennan was rewarded. President Richard Nixon, grateful for the support of the construction workers during and after the Riots, invited Brennan to the White House with a group of union leaders. The meeting confirmed union Democrat support for the war in Vietnam, solidifying a key allegiance in Nixon’s wide base.
Having lost the unions, their working-class members, and the working-class unemployed, little remained of the former ‘party of the working man.’ As the union vote shifted to the other side of the aisle, Nixon enjoyed a historically decisive victory in 1972. Peter Brennan kept Nixon’s ear, and after the election was appointed Labor Secretary. Leftward progress for labor stalled, as Brennan personally fought against affirmative action and progressive wage reforms in the workplace. Nixon kept the gift Brennan offered to celebrate their allegiance: a white hard hat.
Forty years later, the shouting matches at Providence City Council meetings may be tamer than any violence of the ’70s, but the cast of characters is not all that different. The hubris of college students dictating policy to union members with jobs and families at stake is undeniable, and the canyon between the aims of construction unions and progressives in Rhode Island remains deep.
The division does no favors to either side. And the stakes of the split, argues historian Nelson Lichtenstein, are higher than they’ve ever been, as a result of decades of disintegrating protections in labor law. In the wake of Janus v. AFCME (the 2018 Supreme Court decision which ended compulsory union dues for public employees), Lichtenstein warns that traditional models of collective bargaining (“between workers in this factory, or that hotel, or that chicken plant and the owner”) have become practically impossible. “If you’re trying to organize a private sector employer with multiple sites—Wal-Mart is an example—you can’t do it,” he told the Indy, “You can be revolutionaries, but you don’t have the leverage any more.”
Many unions, Lichtenstein said, have begun to rethink their strategy, broadening their goals and forging larger coalitions. One of the new, more ambitious models (widely practiced in Europe) is sectoral bargaining, through which unions negotiate as political actors on behalf of all workers in an industry (like builders or teachers), instead of within one company or workplace. As Lichtenstein explained to the Indy, construction unions could join together to fight for project-labor agreements which heighten safety requirements on worksites or establish better benefits for workers. In the future, sectoral bargaining could mean the building trades advocating for policy changes which would both facilitate new development and achieve progressive initiatives. Supporting these sorts of projects, like affordable housing or clean energy infrastructure, might allow development imperatives for union job security to go unopposed at local Council hearings.
Sectoral bargaining might also begin to chip away at what Carpenter describes as a more structural problem. The most important division is not between unions and progressives, he says, but between workers and developers: “Those people that direct [the unions] have one goal in mind and one goal only: profit. They are giving the orders. The people appointed and asked to work on these jobs have little say in what they’re building.” Fighting in coalitions, unions might be able to reimagine this relationship.
Some campaigns, like the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) “Fight for $15” campaign, have used sectoral bargaining to merge widespread progressive goals with practical union demands. Rather than organizing at each individual franchise, the SEIU and other major unions convinced the National Labor Relations Board to recognize parent company McDonald’s as a joint employer of its franchise workers, allowing the SEIU to negotiate on a far wider level.
The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) successfully employed another coalition-building strategy this past January which some call “Bargaining for the Common Good.” Instead of focusing solely on traditional concerns, like low wages and large classes, the union prioritized improvements in the general quality of schooling, demanding meals for low-income students, limits on random searches of students, and expansions of after-school opportunities. When the L.A. teachers went on strike, parents and students lined up behind them, joining the teachers in demonstrations and skipping work themselves to stand with the union. With this broadened coalition, the UTLA won smaller class sizes and new hiring of support staff. During February in West Virginia, a similar teachers’ strike met parallel success.
These case studies offer a reason for optimism in the face of diminished union power across the United States. The basic message is clear: labor organizing efforts to build coalitions with the broader left can lead to real gains in what unions can win at the bargaining table. Whether or not these lessons can translate to success in the less historically progressive building trades remains unclear, but Lichtenstein remains hopeful. “Success leads to success,” he told the Indy, “When these teachers strike and win, everybody sees that.”
At his desk at Laborers’ Local 271’s busy South Main Street offices, Sabitoni is not about to give up any ground. But he sees the power in this type of coalition building. His old approach to working with state progressives groups, he admitted, was often “just forget it, don’t even waste your time.” But he told the Indy he’s changed his tune. “I’ve looked at the way we’ve conducted business to say that maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing to do.” Now, he said, “my intention, and the intention of the Building Trades Council is to have more interaction with the ‘far progressives.’ If they’re willing to sit down, I’d be willing to try.”
Carpenter, for his part, says he’s also open to sitting down. “Bringing people to the table is incredibly important,” he said the Indy. “We want to work with them.” The tension between trade unions which rely on development for their members and progressive groups reticent to support projects they equate with gentrification, overcrowding, or environmental damage will always exist. But facing an increasing imperative for unity and recognizing the useful potential in a coalition, finding common ground is on the labor agenda. “You shouldn’t need one hundred percent alignment with someone to partner with them,” Regunberg wrote in an email to the Indy.
And when it comes to some infrastructure projects broadly popular among progressives, the pragmatism of the trade unions may prove fruitful for coalition-building. “We’re a practical organization,” said Sabitoni. “I’m for renewables; I build the renewable projects. What we say is we want a practical Green New Deal: improvements in rail, improvements in transportation, mass transit—that all lends itself to the reduction of emissions as well.” Regunberg supports the Green New Deal, and he wrote to the Indy that when progressives focus on “shovel-ready projects,” they can finally expect “support from the building trades.”
Hard hats and green thumbs, in other words, might find something to agree on. And Lichtenstein argues that recent local battles in Rhode Island, like those over the Paw Sox Stadium and the Fane Tower, might grow less common as trade unions find steadier employment in the wake of new environmental and other infrastructural projects. “The building trades, if they’ve got enough work, they’re not going to push for these unpopular, divisive things. If they’re building unionized housing, new roads—then to hell with the stadium,” Lichtenstein said. That just might be enough to settle the tempers at the next contentious Council hearing.
MICHAEL SHORRIS and HARRY AUGUST B’19 think workers (and progressives) of the world ought to unite.