Hunts Point coalition says they’re about jobs, not extortion
It’s hard to reconcile the good work Longwood-based United Hispanic Construction Workers says it does to help the jobless find work, with the allegations of brutality and extortion lodged by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.
In an indictment issued September 26, the DA charges that David Rodriguez and members of the coalition he has headed since 1988 routinely threatened foremen and contractors with violence and labor unrest in hopes of receiving jobs or cash payments, using their organization as an instrument of extortion.
David Rodriguez grew up on Fox Street in the 1970′s. A thick Bronx accent and a crooked nose was the result. At 54, his muscular build and lumbering gait still suggest a violent past, and whether that violence is a thing of the past is the issue that will be tried in Supreme Court in Manhattan.
Rodriguez and his fellow defendants insist that they’re innocent.
“As many as thirty members stormed a job site in an attempt to intimidate the builder and force him or her into paying for bogus security costs, labor peace, or protection from other coalitions,” said Vance in a news release announcing the indictments.
The charges, which include enterprise corruption, 10 counts of grand larceny and coercion are being leveled against Rodriguez, field director Daryll Jennings and the coalition itself.
The indictment says the alleged violent criminal organization has operated for at least 17 years, targeting constructions sites in Manhattan and the Bronx. Its members used “intimidating tactics and sometimes physical force to bring work to a halt and demand money and jobs for coalition members,” said the statement issued by the DA’s office.
The coalition itself claims to operate much like a union, with members paying dues in the hope of finding work. And the men who have found work through the organization praise it for helping when no one else would.
“They just find us employment,” said Chris Richards, 39, a member of the coalition for two and a half years. “We are hardworking people. We’re trained. We’re qualified. Every man and woman here wants to work,” he said.
The group’s approach to finding jobs is a process it calls “shaping,” and it amounts to advocating for employment through persistent presence and demonstrations.
Keeping tabs on major construction sites throughout the city, a group of about 15 workers makes the rounds each day to see if jobs are available. They arrive in an unmarked white van, and pile out at each stop, all carrying tools and wearing workers’ garb, from hard hats to sturdy boots.
“Shaping starts up at 6 in the morning,” says Richards. “Suited and booted. On the bus prepared to work.”
They show up no matter what the weather, bringing with them a bevy of blue raincoats on nasty days. They also bring with them a large pile of bright yellow pickaxe handles.
The axe handles, DA Vance claims, are clubs used to intimidate contractors. Not so, say the workers, who claim they are needed for protection against unions and rival coalitions.
“We ride around and look for work,” said Joseph, a 40-year-old member who refused to give his last name, but said he has known Rodriguez for 25 years. “I’ve raised four kids doing this,” he said.
The group has also been protesting at the corporate office of Tishman Construction–a major contractor in the city–nearly every day since October. It wants the company to give members work. Tishman had no comment when asked for a response by The Express.
While it may not be clear how United Hispanic Construction Workers secures jobs for its members, it is clearly a place its members care about. Each day the Dawson Street shape hall, a dimly lit recreation room, with weightlifting equipment, a pool table, dominos and a television, is bustling. There is a sense of community in the room. The men converse, joke, play games and lift weights.
Staying in shape is a big deal for construction workers. Their bodies are their livelihood. They help each other, spotting, instructing, calling out encouragement and sharing workouts.
“This place is like family to us,” said Richards.
“It’s a good place,” agreed Joseph, who says he carries a Local 6 union card, but still comes to United Hispanic Construction Workers to find work. “The unions don’t do anything for you,” he said.
David Rodriguez and his wife Carmen Tirado Rodriguez also organize a number of charity events throughout the year, including a back to school drive, a Thanksgiving dinner, and a Christmas drive.
This year the organization served about a hundred meals the evening before Thanksgiving, and also gave away 50 turkeys and groceries to people preparing their own Thanksgiving.
“They put a lot of people to work,” said Donald Noble, another union member, who’s been with the coalition since its beginning. “And a lot of food on people’s plates.”
“If I wasn’t here right now,” said Joseph, “I’d be selling drugs. Honestly.”
The indictment is not the only time Rodriguez has been accused of wrongdoing. He was acquitted of similar federal charges in 1993, and there is a pending court case regarding a fight in front of the United Hispanic Construction Worker’s Dawson Street office from last year.
The next court appearance on the latest charges is scheduled for January. Rodriguez has hired high power criminal defense attorney, Murray Richman.
“I sleep good at night,” said Rodriguez when asked about the latest charges. “I know this is bull crap. I’ll be found innocent,” he said.
“Since when does an extortionist get up at 4 a.m.?”