• June 22nd, 2024
  • Saturday, 09:52:45 PM

Unionized Iron Workers Warn Contractors They Won’t Rest Until Bosses Negotiate Contract


Members of the Las Vegas Workers Center prepare posters for protest outside the Black Iron Reinforcing office. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis/Nevada Current)

 

By Jeniffer Solis

Posted June 6, 2024

 

 

Ellisel Artero and Oscar Castillo both work in the scorching Las Vegas heat every summer, installing the steel bars and cables that reinforce buildings in one of the nation’s largest tourist hubs. Neither have retirement savings, employer-provided health insurance, or vacation days.

 

Another thing both men have in common is they work for one of three non-unionized iron reinforcing companies in Southern Nevada. But Artero, Castillo, and a dozen other iron workers are on the cusp of changing that.

 

In April, the National Labor Relations Board finally certified a union election held by Las Vegas iron workers seeking to join the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers.

Empleados actuales y antiguos de Black Iron Reinforcing protestan por Current and former Black Iron Reinforcing employees protest for union recognition outside Black Iron Reinforcing office. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis/Nevada Current)

Workers at Black Iron Reinforcing, a Nevada-based concrete reinforcing contractor, voted in September 2022 to join the Ironworkers Union, but the company objected, resulting in a two year delay. Since then, the Ironworkers Union has been helping workers try to improve working conditions at the company while waiting for recognition and a union contract.

 

“What we are fighting for is a contract,” said Artero, a 53 year-old former Black Iron worker from México, and a member of Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center. “We all know that if we are successful at getting the company owners to sign a contract, we can solve all the labor abuses we’ve experienced until now.”

 

Before unionizing, workers said they were subjected to a number of unjust conditions at Black Iron, including wage theft, poor safety enforcement, and dangerous working conditions.

 

In September last year, Black Iron employee Marco Reséndiz lost part of his thumb when a piece of rebar penetrated his protective gear and sliced it off. At the time of that injury, Resendez had been assigned to light duty while recovering from a workplace shoulder injury.

 

They want you to work more than you’re physically capable of.”
Oscar Castillo, Iron Worker

 

Union representatives argued that had Black Iron followed labor laws and excused him from heavy labor, Resendez would not have lost his finger, adding that the company has a long history of labor violations.

 

“They want you to work more than you’re physically capable of,” said Oscar Castillo, a 29 year-old Black Iron worker from El Salvador. “They don’t care if I drink water, they don’t care about your health, they don’t care about any of that.”

 

Artero said while working for Black Iron, he was also pressured to work overtime or risk retaliation, including reduced working hours, or threats of termination.

 

From 2014 through 2023, XL Concrete, the parent company of Black Iron, had 29 safety violations in Nevada, according to the National Council of Occupational Safety and Health. Faced with labor violations and dangerous working conditions, Black Iron workers say their only option is to fight for changes at the company through unionization.

 

However, despite union certification last month, Black Iron has failed to meet union representatives at the bargaining table, say employees. Instead, Black Iron workers say they have faced continued retaliation and disciplinary actions.

 

Black Iron representatives did not respond to multiple interview requests.

 

In February 2022 — after a majority of the Black Iron employees signed a petition for union representation — workers demanded a timely union election. Almost immediately, workers at Black Iron reported retaliation from the company, including surveillance, interrogation, discrimination, and direct threats of termination for organizing activity.

 

Determined workers pushed forward anyway and filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, before voting in favor of unionizing with the Ironworkers Union in September 2022.

 

Black Iron workers allege that leading up to their September 2022 union election, the company began cutting employee hours and laying off workers, dropping from 110 employees, to 104 employees, before finally falling to about 45 employees. By the end of March, workers who managed to keep their jobs while organizing for a union had their hours reduced from full-time employment with overtime to less than 30 hours a week.

 

Union organizers filed a labor complaint against Black Iron in April 2023 with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the layoffs and reduced hours were retaliatory. In a filing with the federal labor board, Black Iron suggested the drop in employees was due to competitors poaching its employees and offering them higher wages, rather than retaliation.

 

That case has yet to be resolved, but now workers are fighting for union recognition and a fair union contract.

 

Federal protections

 

One of the biggest barriers to unionization for workers in the construction industry is the threat of deportation for migrant workers, said union organizers working with Black Iron employees.

 

Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su warned migrant workers in Las Vegas in January that immigration-based retaliation creates unfair labor market conditions and perpetuates unlawful acts by employers, including wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and chills workers’ ability to organize and collectively bargain.

 

Former Black Iron employee Reséndiz — who lost part of his thumb while working under challenging conditions — was one of several laborers in Las Vegas to receive the first deportation relief and work permit renewals under the federal Deferred Action for Labor Enforcement or DALE in January.

 

At the time, Reséndiz said he would use his newfound federal protections to encourage other laborers to speak up about labor violations by employers, adding they could receive federal protection from immigration-related retaliation like he did.

 

Emboldened by a federal union recognition in April, backing from local organizers, and strong federal deportation relief for workers facing immigration-related intimidation by abusive employers, current and former Black Iron employees aren’t backing down.

 

On May 1, Black Iron employees took that lesson to heart when several workers walked off a work site in protest of the company’s failure to meet them at the bargaining table — an action protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

 

When Castillo gave his safety manager a notice that he would be participating in the union action on May 1, he was told the notice had no legal backing under labor law, and that he would likely be fired. Castillo joined the protest anyway.

 

Many employees want to unionize, said Castillo, but are fearful of retaliation, lower wages, and less hours. Castillo recalled watching his coworkers, who were most vocal about unionizing, lose employment. He said he himself was dismissed from work for three weeks, before being called back in due to a labor shortage.

 

After the Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center and union organizers with the District Council of Iron Workers of the State of California and Vicinity joined the effort, Castillo said he felt more confident that his efforts to unionize would ultimately be successful.

 

“I want to live a better life, a stable life, that’s why I’m fighting,” Castillo said.  “You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and if we don’t stand up for ourselves now, we never will.”

 

Arturo said he believes it’s only a matter of time before the company signs a union contract. Black Iron is feeling the pressure after several demonstrations forced work sites to shut down as workers walked off in support of the union, said Arturo.

 

“These companies know that the labor we provide is indispensable,” he continued. “If there were a technology that could do this work, it would have replaced us a long time ago.”

 

 

Jeniffer Solis is a Reporter with the Nevada Current. This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.