You get what you pay for

As Dorchester fire shows, hiring nonunion contractors is risky

BOSTON RANKED AMONG the top 20 cities in the world for direct commercial real estate investment in 2016, and it shows – everywhere you turn there’s a new development cropping up – and it’s a trend that will continue. It’s time we had a serious conversation about safety.

A massive residential fire swept through a new building under construction in Dorchester this summer, and it should provide an important lesson to developers. A Boston Fire Department report found the fire began between the roof and top floor when an exhaust pipe from a generator that was being tested was not spaced, according to code, at least 12 inches from combustible material. As a result, the materials caught fire. It was a foolish mistake that could have jeopardized residents who were scheduled to move in the following weeks. Shortcuts like this one cause accidents and put people at risk of serious injury or even death. Luckily, in this case, those were avoided.

The subcontractor at the building then failed to alert the fire department for a full 90 minutes, ignoring smoke and other signs of a fire. Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn blasted the subcontractors for the delay. It meant a crucial window closed when, had they been alerted, firefighters might have been able to save the building. It was a delay that put workers, firefighters, and the surrounding community at grave risk.

As a trained electrician, I know that when developers decide to cut corners and hire folks who subcontract the work to unqualified, unscrupulous contractors, they are taking a real risk, one that will be borne by the future residents of that building, the community surrounding it, and the investors that put their money on the line for the project.

On the other hand, when developers hire responsible union contractors, they know what they’re getting: highly skilled, highly productive professional electricians who are better trained to recognize hazards before they become tragedies. This leads to better long-term value for their investment and the peace of mind that comes from knowing things are going to be done right the first time.

Union workplaces in general have been shown to be safer. According to research, the protection provided by a union means significantly lower risk of traumatic injuries and fatalities for all workers, from miners to long-haul truck drivers to workers in the building trades. Unions, like IBEW Local 103, provide the construction end-user with not only the most qualified electricians and technicians but also the safest. A recent study of the construction industry found that union workers receive more safety training, have better access to safety equipment, and are more likely to speak up if they believe their working conditions are unsafe.

When developers hire substandard contractors, it creates a race-to-the-bottom atmosphere where safety is often ignored. Those subcontractors are not focused on the long-term value of the investment, either for the developer or the community.  They are focused on completing a job quickly at the lowest possible cost. There is little incentive to take the time to provide safety training or to invest in safety equipment.

It is not unreasonable to ask whether those nonunion workers at the building in Dorchester would have been less hesitant to report the signs of a fire if they had the protection of a union in their workplace.

When you cut corners to save pennies, you risk everything. The developer, no doubt, has insurance that will cover the costs of rebuilding and repairing damage to surrounding buildings. However, more importantly, they’ve lost the trust of a community and the goodwill of their neighbors. We are very lucky that no one was injured, and we all owe our gratitude to the brave firefighters who battled the blaze in June. Local families that qualified for low-income housing in the building are now forced to wait longer for an adequate, affordable home.

Meet the Author

Louis Antonellis

Business manager, IBEW Local 103
Developers in Boston should take the fire as a lesson. Focusing solely on short-term cost-cutting when building a long-term investment can create real liability for taxpayers and present grave dangers to residents and communities. Despite misconceptions, union contractors are just as cost-competitive as “open shops” and what they add in terms of the safety and long-term value for our communities is hard to overstate. Hiring responsible union contractors is the right investment for Massachusetts.

Louis Antonellis is the business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 103.